Authoritarian El Salvador
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In December 1931, El Salvador’s civilian president, Arturo Araujo, was overthrown in a military coup. Such an event was hardly unique in Salvadoran history, but the 1931 coup proved to be a watershed. Araujo had been the nation’s first democratically elected president, and although no one could have foreseen the result, the coup led to five decades of uninterrupted military rule, the longest run in modern Latin American history. Furthermore, six weeks after coming to power, the new military regime oversaw the crackdown on a peasant rebellion in western El Salvador that is one of the worst episodes of state-sponsored repression in modern Latin American history. Democracy would not return to El Salvador until the 1990s, and only then after a brutal twelve-year civil war. In Authoritarian El Salvador: Politics and the Origins of the Military Regimes, 1880-1940, Erik Ching seeks to explain the origins of the military regime that came to power in 1931. Based on his comprehensive survey of the extant documentary record in El Salvador’s national archive, Ching argues that El Salvador was typified by a longstanding tradition of authoritarianism dating back to the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The basic structures of that system were based on patron-client relationships that wove local, regional, and national political actors into complex webs of rival patronage networks. Decidedly nondemocratic in practice, the system nevertheless exhibited highly paradoxical traits: it remained steadfastly loyal to elections as the mechanism by which political aspirants acquired office, and it employed a political discourse laden with appeals to liberty and free suffrage. That blending of nondemocratic authoritarianism with populist reformism and rhetoric set the precedent for military rule for the next fifty years.



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Date de parution 15 janvier 2014
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780268076993
Langue English

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Scott Mainwaring, series editor
The University of Notre Dame Press gratefully thanks the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies for its support in the publication of titles in this series .
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The Formation of Souls: Imagery of the Republic in Brazil (2012)
Douglas Chalmers and Scott Mainwaring, eds.
Problems Confronting Contemporary Democracies: Essays in Honor of Alfred Stepan (2012)
Peter K. Spink, Peter M. Ward, and Robert H. Wilson, eds.
Metropolitan Governance in the Federalist Americas: Strategies for Equitable and Integrated Development (2012)
Natasha Borges Sugiyama
Diffusion of Good Government: Social Sector Reforms in Brazil (2012)
Ignacio Walker
Democracy in Latin America: Between Hope and Despair (2013)
Laura Gómez-Mera
Power and Regionalism in Latin America: The Politics of MERCOSUR (2013)
Erik Ching
Authoritarian El Salvador: Politics and the Origins of the Military Regimes, 1880–1940 (2013)
For a complete list of titles from the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, see
Politics and the Origins of the Military Regimes, 1880–1940
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
Copyright © 2014 by University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556 -->
All Rights Reserved
E-ISBN: 978-0-268-07699-3
This eBook was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at Manufactured in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Ching, Erik Kristofer. Authoritarian El Salvador : politics and the origins of the military regimes, 1880-1940 / Erik Ching. pages cm.—(From the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-268-02375-1 (pbk.)—ISBN 0-268-02375-1 (paper) 1. El Salvador—History—Revolution, 1932. 2. El Salvador—History—1838–1944. 3. Authoritarianism—El Salvador—History. 4. Military government—El Salvador—History—20th century. I. Title. F1487.5.C54 2013 972.8405'2—dc23 2013030743 The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources . -->
List of Tables ix -->
List of Acronyms and Abbreviations xi -->
Acknowledgments xiii -->
Maps xviii -->
Introduction 1 -->
CHAPTER 1. The Rules: Formal and Informal 35 -->
CHAPTER 2. National-Level Networks in Conflict in the Nineteenth Century 77 -->
CHAPTER 3. Building Networks at the Local Level 101 -->
CHAPTER 4. Municipal Elections and Municipal Autonomy, ca. 1880–1930 139 -->
CHAPTER 5. The Network of the State: Meléndez-Quiñónez, 1913–1926 173 -->
CHAPTER 6. Facing the Leviathan: Pío Romero Bosque and the Experiment with Democracy, 1927–1931 208 -->
CHAPTER 7. Politics under the Military Regime, 1931–1940 246 -->
CHAPTER 8. Populist Authoritarianism, 1931–1940 287 -->
Conclusion 336 -->
Bibliography Index 453 -->
Table 1.1 . Voting in Cuscatlán Department, Vice Presidential Election, 1895
Table 1.2 . Assembly Elections, Izalco Parish, December 1870
Table 1.3 . Deputy Election, Atiquizaya District, December 30, 1883
Table 1.4 . Main Transfers of Power between Rival Networks at the National Level, 1841–1903
Table 1.5 . Results from Sonsonate City, Presidential Election of December 1841
Table 3.1 . Municipal Officials, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, 1896, 1900, 1901
Table 3.2 . Election Results in Nahuizalco during the Years of Indian Rule, 1885–1901
Table 3.3 . Municipal Councils in Cuisnahuat, Sonsonate Department, 1885–1899
Table 3.4 . Election Results, Cuisnahuat, Sonsonate Department, 1900, 1901, 1903
Table 4.1 . Election Results, Ataco, Ahuachapán Department, 1883
Table 4.2 . Municipal Election, Guadalupe, San Vicente Department, December 1849
Table 4.3 . Municipal Election, Juayúa, Sonsonate Department, December 1886
Table 6.1 . Nullification Proceedings Conducted by the Ministerio de Gobernación, 1913–1930
Table 6.2 . Local Affiliates of Candidates in the 1931 Election Who Had Served on Municipal Councils under the PND between 1920 and 1925
Table 7.1 . Municipal Officials Elected in Juayúa, 1921–1939
Archivo General de la Nación, San Salvador, El Salvador
Archivo de Gobernación Sonsonate, El Salvador
Archivo Municipal de Izalco, El Salvador
Archivo Municipal de Juayúa, El Salvador
Archivo Municipal de Sonsonate, El Salvador
Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republican Alliance)
Colección de Nulos
Fondo Alcaldía
Foreign Office
Federación Regional de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (Regional Federation of Salvadoran Workers)
Frederick William Taylor Papers, UCLA Dept. of Special Collections
Ismael Fuentes Collection
Ministerio de Gobernación
Organización Democrática Nacionalista (Nationalist Democratic Organization)
“Pre-Burn” Collection
Partido de Conciliación Nacional (National Conciliation Party)
Partido Comunista Salvadoreño (Communist Party of El Salvador)
Partido Nacional Democrático (National Democratic Party)
Public Record Office, London, England
Partido Revolucionario de Unificación Democrática (Revolutionary Party of Democratic Unification)
Record Group
Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, Moscow, Russia
Sección Indiferente
Socorro Rojo Internacional (International Red Aid)
Sección Sonsonate
Sección San Vicente
United States National Archives, Washington, DC
Washington National Record Center, Suitland, Maryland
Any project in the works as long as this one will invariably accumulate much indebtedness. As I take this opportunity to consider the debts I have accrued along the way, I find it personally humbling and professionally eye-opening to realize the amount of support from individuals and institutions that is necessary to bring a project like this to fruition. Researching, writing, and revising are solitary efforts, but they only occur because of highly collective networks of support.
In a reverse chronology, I open with those who most recently helped to make this possible. The first is my home institution, Furman University, which granted me a yearlong sabbatical award for 2011–2012 that made time available for the final round of revisions. Since completing the initial version of this manuscript as a dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1997, I have worked steadily but intermittently over the years on revising it into a book. Meanwhile, I was drawn into various other projects on Salvadoran history. In fact, I was embarking on yet another of those for my sabbatical when Scott Mainwaring, editor of the series in which this book is being published, contacted me to tell me he had been working on a new study in comparative politics, and El Salvador was one of his cases. He suggested I submit my work to the University of Notre Dame Press. As a result, I directed a portion of my sabbatical leave towards completing the revisions to this project. I would like to thank Scott for his support and for encouraging me to set aside another new endeavor and focus on this one.
The research for this project was done under the auspices of various institutions and organizations. The Albert J. Beveridge Grant for Research in the History of the Western Hemisphere from the American Historical Association funded my exploratory trip to the Salvadoran archives. The subsequent yearlong trip was made possible by a Fulbright grant, which also included trips to Moscow and London. The writing of the initial version of this study, my dissertation, was done with grant support from the history department and the graduate division at UC Santa Barbara, and from the Academy for Educational Development.
All of the publication projects that I have undertaken since arriving at Furman have informed this project and made it better and more contextualized. Thus, the research endeavors for those projects are somewhat synonymous with this one. Fulbright, once again, supported an extended research trip to El Salvador in 2005, and the Research and Professional Growth Committee at Furman has funded multiple short-term trips to El Salvador since my arrival in 1998. A grant from the Associated Colleges of the South’s (ACS) Faculty Renewal Program funded a research trip to El Salvador. Follow-up research in Moscow was made possible by the ACS’s Global Partners Project–Central Europe and Russia Task Force.
My participation on Furman’s Latin America study abroad program has also been a valuable asset to this project. Between 2004 and 2012, it kept me returning to El Salvador more or less annually. While my mission on those programs was to teach students, the necessity of creating opportunities for them provided me with many unexpected contacts and research threads that I later followed on my own.
I extend special thanks to Hector Lindo-Fuentes, my coauthor on Modernizing Minds in El Salvador and Remembering a Massacre in El Salvador . He has been with me since the start of my graduate career and has been a continual sounding board and source of support. So too has Knut Walter, historian of El Salvador, whom I first met on my initial research trip to El Salvador in 1993. I would not have made it this far without the two of them.
I would also like to thank other scholars, most of them Salvadoranists, who have helped me along the way as collaborators, commenters, sounding boards, or research companions, including Aldo Lauria-Santiago, Virginia Tilley, Michael Schroeder, Carlos Gregorio López Bernal, Paul Almeida, Jeff Gould, Ellen Moodie, Brandt Pederson, Alfredo Ramírez, María Eugenia López, Aldo García Guevara, Rafael Lara-Martínez, Carlos Henríquez Consalvi, Leigh Binford, Bob Holden, Henrik Rønsbo, Jan Suter, Patricia Alvarenga Venutolo, James Mahoney, Héctor Pérez Brignoli, and René Aguiluz. Thanks also to members of my dissertation committee—Sarah Cline, Fernando López Alves, and Robert Collins—and to Gerald Horne, formerly of the Black Studies Department at UCSB.
My fellow historians in the history department at Furman University have been as much friends as colleagues. They have created a nurturing professional environment and have been nothing but encouraging, oftentimes picking up the slack when I was abroad, on family leave, or cloistered away in my office. They have provided me with intellectual insights and stimulated many ideas and concepts that have contributed to this study and to the others I have worked on. I am grateful to be part of their community. Many of my non-historian colleagues here at Furman have been equally helpful in an interdisciplinary context.
The two anonymous reviewers who evaluated the manuscript for UND Press offered excellent suggestions. Reviewer #1, in particular, provided the most comprehensive review I’ve ever seen, or written, for that matter. I am particularly appreciative of that reviewer’s attentiveness to and support for the manuscript. The acquisitions editor at UND Press, Stephen Little, has been gracious and encouraging throughout the publication process. I thank Kellie Hultgren for her careful work in copyediting. I am especially grateful to designer Brian Faulkenberry of Furman University’s Marketing Department for creating and revising the maps for this book.
A historian is utterly reliant on archives and thus equally dependent upon archive and library staffs. I’ve been invariably impressed by the staff members I have worked with across multiple continents, but especially those in El Salvador, who labor under adverse conditions but who have always been gracious and eager to assist me. The staff members at the national archive (Archivo General de la Nación, or AGN) in El Salvador, in particular, have had to endure me on multiple occasions, but especially for that long year in 1994 and 1995 when I was a fixture in the building nearly every day, from opening until closing. Our physical surroundings were less than ideal, and the archive was still in something of a shambles, but they patiently negotiated me as they went about their business of bringing order to the chaos around them. So, to Miguel Angel, Isabella, Maria Eugenia, Luís, Mauricio, Sebas, and some others whom I am undoubtedly overlooking, I extend my heartfelt thanks. I also would like to acknowledge the adept assistance of Svetlana Rosenthal in the Comintern Archive in Moscow, Russia. She was gracious and accommodating. Also, the library staff at Furman University has been nothing but supportive in helping me with my seemingly unending requests for arcane and hard-to-find sources over the past fifteen years.
Aldo Lauria-Santiago, Patricia Alvarenga Venutolo, and I utilized the archives in El Salvador at a distinct moment, the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the archives were opened to the public for the first time and the staff members were still taking stock of the monumental task of ordering and protecting the nation’s documentary patrimony. Still, they granted us gracious and liberal access to the materials. Without that liberal access, this project would never have been possible. As I describe in more detail in the introduction, I was able to sift through every page of documentation in the Gobernación collection, along with other collections in national, regional, and municipal archives. A strength of this project is the extent to which its conclusions are based on a comprehensive survey of the extant documentary record. Access to the materials is now more strict and controlled, as it should be. But without a similar degree of access, especially in the absence of detailed indices and high levels of organization in the collections, recreating this research would be, I believe, next to impossible, especially for a solitary researcher.
I would like to thank Jack Bermingham and David Rock, my undergraduate and graduate advisors respectively. Jack triggered my desire to teach, and he has since supported me more times than I can count. David never planned to have a Salvadoranist under his tutelage, but he endured me patiently and supported me avidly. In recognition, I dedicate the book to them.
I would not be writing these words without family and friends. As to the latter, most of them would not care one way or the other if I mention them in writing, so for the sake of simplicity, I will simply say, thanks, you know who you are. As to the former, my parents Harriette and Woody, my sister Nissa, and my in-laws Matt and Carol and Rob and Jaime have been there to help out so much, I cannot even begin to do them justice in words. And last but not least, my wife Cathy and my children, Anders and Halle: they are my foundation of support, and, naturally, they had to deal with my self-sequestering more than anyone else.
* * *
Small portions of chapters 6, 7, and 8 have been published previously, and they reappear in the present work with permission of the respective publishers:
“In Search of the Party: Communism, the Comintern and the Rebellion of 1932 in El Salvador.” The Americas 55, no. 2 (1998): 204–39. Reprinted with permission of The Americas .
“Indians, the Military and the Rebellion of 1932 in El Salvador,” by Erik Ching and Virginia Tilley, Journal of Latin American Studies 30, no. 1 (1998): 121–56. Reprinted with permission of Cambridge Journals.
Material from Modernizing Minds in El Salvador: Education Reform and the Cold War, 1960–1980, by Héctor Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching, © 2012, is used and reprinted by permission of the University of New Mexico Press.
Material from “Patronage and Politics under Martínez, 1931–39: The Local Roots of Military Authoritarianism in El Salvador,” by Erik Ching, from Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Society and Community in El Salvador, edited by Aldo Lauria and Leigh Binford, © 2004, is used and reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Map 1. El Salvador’s Fourteen Departments and Their Capital Cities (Contemporary)

Map 2. The Historical Evolution of El Salvador’s Departmental Boundaries

Map 2. continued

Map 2. continued
On December 2, 1931, El Salvador’s civilian president, Arturo Araujo, was deposed in a quickly executed military coup. He was replaced by his vice president, General Maximiliano Martínez. 1 At the time, the 1931 coup seemed unexceptional. El Salvador and its neighboring countries had experienced plenty of coups, and many military officers had served as president. In hindsight, the 1931 coup was a watershed in Salvadoran history. Arturo Araujo had been elected in a relatively free and fair election, the first of its kind in El Salvador. Sixty years would pass before democracy returned to El Salvador. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the Martínez regime would usher in five decades of dictatorial military rule, the longest run of uninterrupted military rule in Latin American history. That series of military regimes was followed by twelve years of devastating civil war between 1980 and 1992. Not until after the war did democracy return to El Salvador, and only then because the war caused the military to be restructured and the political system to be reformed.
The Martínez regime exemplifies an authoritarian tradition in El Salvador. He was a stern, esoteric man, and his adherence to theosophy garnered him the nickname El brujo (the witch or sorcerer). He ended the nascent experiment with democracy and used state power to violently suppress popular dissent. The most extreme example of his regime’s repressive character came in response to a peasant uprising in the western zones of the country in January 1932, just six weeks after he came to power. During the uprising, peasant rebels attacked roughly one dozen townships, killed approximately one hundred people, and damaged a variety of businesses and residences owned by local elites. In response, government soldiers swept through the western countryside, killing untold thousands of people, sometimes in highly orchestrated mass executions. The killings of 1932 would prove to be one of the worst episodes of state-sponsored repression in modern Latin American history. In various ways, the events surrounding General Martínez’s rise to power and the 1932 uprising exemplify El Salvador’s well-earned reputation as a nation long on authoritarianism and short on democracy.
The compelling and tragic events of the late 1920s and early 1930s in El Salvador inspired questions that led to this study. What were the origins of the Martínez regime? How did the political system operate during his reign? Did it resemble past regimes? Was there indeed a democratic interlude prior to Martínez, and if so, how did it function? What were the causes of the 1932 uprising, and how did the events of 1932 affect the consolidation of the regime under Martínez, as well as the military-led regimes that succeeded him?
I have grouped my responses to those questions in the following five arguments. First, politics in El Salvador was indeed defined by a long-standing system of nondemocratic authoritarianism that dates to the earliest days of the republic, but which took full form with the rise of the coffee economy and state centralization in the late nineteenth century. The system was characterized by a complex series of patronage-based alliances that functioned according to a set of informal rules that every political actor understood, but which were never codified. This system of nondemocratic authoritarianism was challenged between 1927 and 1931 under the leadership of President Pío Romero Bosque. He and a coterie of state bureaucrats attempted to change the informal rules by directing the system away from patronage and towards a more genuine democracy. That reform initiative resulted in the election of Arturo Araujo in 1931. The regime of General Martínez overturned those reforms and returned to the structures and practices of the pre-Romero era. Therefore, continuity is the first and foremost theme advanced by this study. The military regime that began in December 1931 was rooted in the structures and practices of the liberal dictatorships prior to 1927.
El Salvador’s nondemocratic political system exhibited some highly paradoxical traits, including a vigorous and regular electoral process with high voter turnout, and a political discourse that celebrated democracy, freedom of suffrage, and individual liberty. A second claim of this study is that a fundamental disconnect existed between what political actors said and what they did, between their rhetoric and reality, between the formal legal codes and the informal rules of how politics was actually practiced. Out of these paradoxes emerged a distinct political culture of authoritarianism that became a determinant variable in setting the parameters by which Salvadorans practiced politics. Thus, an extension of this second argument is that culture matters in explanations of how and why El Salvador’s particular political system came to exist. El Salvador’s material conditions may or may not have predisposed it towards authoritarianism, but its inhabitants’ decisions, practices, and habits mattered. The era of President Romero Bosque offers a particularly revealing window on how the informal rules functioned. He advocated for genuine democratic reforms, and his actions prompted local political actors, accustomed to the traditional practices, to bombard the central government with requests for clarification. Why were the ministry’s officials rejecting the usual practices, and why did they seem to be changing the meaning of the terms democracy and freedom of suffrage?
As one might expect, the unequal relationship between landed elites and their laborers served as a foundation for patronage relations and the attendant patron-client relations. But class inequality was not the sole inspiration for nondemocratic political practices. A third argument of this study is that peasant communities employed the same exclusionary practices as their elite counterparts. The number of cases available to support this claim is not extensive, but those cases that do exist show peasant communities manipulating local polling stations just as their elite rivals did. Not surprisingly, those elections tended to produce unanimous results in favor of the peasants’ candidates, even though their members constituted the overwhelming majority of the voting population and presumably would have won the elections, had they been conducted freely and fairly. These discoveries suggest that nondemocratic practices were deeply entrenched in Salvadoran society and political culture. They also show that peasants and poor people participated in the construction of their nation’s political systems. Elites may have set the terms of debate, in part by crafting the laws that governed political procedures, but poor people pursued their interests through the extant systems. Nonelites therefore took part in the normalization of nondemocratic authoritarianism in El Salvador.
A fourth argument of this study operates along a similar vein: long-standing conflicts existed between indigenous peasant communities and ladino (non-Indian) elites throughout the western highlands for control over local political office. Once again, these political conflicts took place between rival patronage-based networks, not necessarily between poor advocates of democratization and elite adherents of nondemocratic authoritarianism. The conflicts came to a head just prior to the 1932 uprising, in the midst of the Romero reforms, the Martínez coup, and the growing impact of the Great Depression. These revelations about local political conflicts suggest the need for a revisionist interpretation of the 1932 uprising, rooting its causes in long-standing local affairs and the organizational autonomy of peasant communities, rather than the traditional version that stresses the organizational impetus of the Salvadoran Communist Party. The rebellion demonstrated poor people’s ability to press their demands and force the existing system to acknowledge their needs. The succession of military governments after 1932 dutifully placed the needs of common Salvadorans at the center of political rhetoric, even though their actual policies paled in comparison to it. The 1932 uprising demonstrated the risks associated with violent insurgency for the long-term interests of peasants and poor people. The rebellion enflamed elites’ passions and made them more reactionary and resistant to change, hallmarks of their actions in subsequent decades.
Finally, the government’s response to the 1932 uprising created a model that all successor military regimes would follow. The Martínez regime used violence on a colossal scale to beat back the threat of an autonomous peasantry; as part of that process, it returned the political system to its pre-reformist norm, but with an even more intensified centralization of power in the central government. But it also insisted that reform, or at least the idea of reform, was an essential counterpart to repression and political authoritarianism. Regime bureaucrats sought an ordered and stable society, one in which economic production could proceed unabated. They realized that dead and rebellious peasants did not made good workers. As a result, they adopted a strategy in which they repressed when they felt it necessary and closed down the abbreviated democratic opening, but simultaneously called for social reforms as a way to prevent rebellion. In particular, they identified one source of the problem as unscrupulous elites who exploited workers and thus created fertile ground for communist agitation. Such calls for reform were accompanied by the standard rhetorical appeals to democracy and free suffrage. This reform/repress dichotomy was fully evident in the response to the 1932 uprising, which suggests that the uprising represented a key moment in the shaping of military rule in El Salvador. Even though the Martínez regime did little to implement reforms, it set a precedent on which its successors would expand. For better or worse, the combination of reform and repression became the standard strategy of military governance for fifty years.
The relevance of these five arguments can be further clarified by placing them in the broader context of Salvadoran historiography. The nature of military rule in El Salvador and the corresponding relationship between landed elites and the military have been the topics of much academic discussion. A prevailing narrative posits that landed elites and the military formed a united front. The elites surrendered control over the offices of government in exchange for security. To that end, the military became the Praetorian Guard of the landed elites (primarily coffee growers), and military officers were allowed to enjoy whatever privileges came with officeholding. In exchange, those officers guaranteed that elites were free to organize their economic affairs as they wished. The military’s brutal response to the peasant uprising of 1932 seemed to embody that arrangement, as did the many subsequent episodes of state repression of the working poor. Political scientist William Stanley summarized this relationship succinctly in the title to his 1996 study of El Salvador: The Protection Racket State . 2
The present study more or less sustains that argumentative thread, but stresses the need to look at it with a nuanced eye. Too easily we can fall into a rigid interpretive frame that implies that the relationship between landowners and military officers was seamless. In fact, it was fraught with complexities. Neither the military nor the elites operated as unified blocs. Each was characterized by internal divisions and messy political rivalries, some merely personal or opportunistic, and others that were ideological and based on differing visions of the country’s future. When those complicated assemblages of elites and officers met in the political arena to make policy and determine the personnel of government, the prospects for complexity increased exponentially. Certainly, conservative officers found common cause with conservative elites, and together they could form a formidable political bloc. But challengers abounded, and sometimes they bonded over an alternative ideological vision, even over a shared belief in the need for social reform. Sometimes loyalty to institution trumped ideology, as when soldiers, for example, banded together and adhered to the internal rules of the armed forces, regardless of other stakeholders’ interests.
Ironically, the esoteric authoritarian General Martínez highlights this need for nuance. He may have repressed without quarter and defined economic development as export-agricultural production led by landed elites, but he also raised the call for reform and demonstrated an evolving relationship with elites. Not the least example of this complexity was his government’s attempt to end the system of plantation-owned stores and stop the elites’ customary practice of paying workers in coupons rather than legal currency. Even if he failed in that particular attempt, and even if the overall byproducts of his reform program were modest, Martínez created the unprecedented expectation that government, with its capacity for autonomous action, was obligated to look out for common people. And even if elites did not find themselves overly threatened by Martínez’s policies, they feared that future regimes (military or civilian) might be worse. Indeed, Martínez’s successors followed his lead, even if they disavowed his name, and pursued reforms more aggressively, eventually implementing a land reform, an act that elites would never forget and never forgive. However much elites might have benefitted from military rule, many of them became highly suspicious of military leaders’ commitment to their priorities of economic libertarianism and the sanctity of private property. If nothing else, this study seeks to demonstrate that the foundational years of military rule in El Salvador demonstrate the need for a nuanced approach.
A second, parallel historiographical debate is the role of El Salvador’s poor or “subaltern” peoples in the making of their nation’s history. It is safe to say that until the latter half of the twentieth century, they were largely absent from historical narratives. Due in no small part to the surge in popular mobilization in the 1960s and 1970s, progressive intellectuals looked to rectify this absence. One of the initial contributions came from the famed poet and activist Roque Dalton. In two brief historical surveys published in the early 1960s, El Salvador and El Salvador: monografía, both of which remain in print today, Dalton challenged the prevailing narratives that withheld critiques from elites and denied agency to subaltern actors. Subsequent studies built on Dalton’s foundation and consolidated a subaltern counternarrative of national history. The present study shows the value of that counternarrative. Admittedly, the system of patronage and clientelism that prevailed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worked to the long-term benefit of elites and the detriment of the working poor. After the attempt to create a more genuinely democratic system failed in 1931, Martínez returned to past political patterns and rested his system of governance on patronage-based, hierarchical class relations. In the Martínez system, local elites served as municipal political leaders and workers and peasants constituted the rank and file. But peasants and the working poor were not absent from the process. They bargained constantly with elites and in the process shaped the manner and way in which Salvadoran history unfolded. Not the least act of “bargaining” was the 1932 uprising. Thereafter, few, if any, leaders in El Salvador dared rule without at least paying lip service to the need for social reform. And whatever motived the eventual enactment of reforms, particularly the land, banking, and export reforms after 1979, be it conviction or expediency, the mobilized demands of poor people were largely responsible for making them happen. 3
Nevertheless, one of the distinguishing features of El Salvador, at least compared to some other countries in Latin America, is the absence of a clearly defined moment in the nineteenth century when plebian masses, either urban or rural, articulated their definition of civic republicanism and sought to insert that definition into the national body politic. Scholars who have conducted research in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, for example, have found evidence of these moments. 4 Whether the failure to do so in El Salvador reflects an actual difference from these other countries, the peculiarities of the documentary record or the distinctiveness of the scholars who have done research in it can be debated. Regardless, for the time being, El Salvador seems to represent a distinct case.
As should be evident, this study’s point of departure is politics and elections. The political arena was the space in which Salvadorans negotiated with one another over their society and its future. Elections were revelatory moments in the process. No political leader in El Salvador, whether dictator or democrat, served in office without the sanction of an election, however fettered the voting might have been. Even though El Salvador has been typified by authoritarian and dictatorial politics throughout its modern history, it was also the site of vigorous electoral activity. Elections happened with great regularity, and many people turned out to vote. At some level, these electoral proceedings were political theater, or “civic ceremonies,” as Peter Guardino describes them in Mexico. 5 But they were essential to proving a leader’s ability to rule. Getting lots of people to the polls and then controlling the electoral outcome proved that a candidate deserved to hold office. And similarly, when politics turned violent, a leader’s ability to enact violence was meant to be understood, in the words of historian Robert Holden, “by its witnesses, victims, and perpetrators alike as a demonstration of fitness to rule.” 6 By examining political activities and elections, the present study seeks to show how the political system functioned and thereby contribute to an understanding of the nation’s enduring authoritarianism.
This study begins in earnest in the late nineteenth century, when the liberal oligarchic state consolidated in conjunction with the rise in coffee exports. Thus, the background is one of state centralization and its highly paradoxical nature. A strong state made possible the modern military authoritarian regime that began with Martínez in 1931, but as the historian and theorist Charles Tilly observes, almost no democratic system in the world has come into existence in a society characterized by a weak state. 7 Indeed, it was only after the Salvadoran state became stronger and more centralized in the late 1920s that a democratic process emerged. And it was only with the power of the newly centralized state that Martínez destroyed the fledgling democracy. An understanding of how the Salvadoran state centralized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and what that process meant to the day-to-day practice of politics is therefore essential to answering questions about the persistence of authoritarianism in El Salvador. The study looks at the early and middle nineteenth century as well, but selectively, seeking out general patterns. The primary objective is to arrive at the pivotal moment in the late 1920s and early 1930s with a contextualized and explanatory eye.
The study is defined by its distinct sources. Most of the evidence consists of documents from Salvadoran archives, especially the national archive, the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN). I first went to the AGN in 1993, shortly after the civil war ended and just a few years after its doors were opened to the public for the first time. 8 I have since returned numerous times. Its collections are of mixed usefulness for a study of politics. Some potentially key collections, such as military records and presidential papers, are not housed there. They have either been destroyed or stored secretly elsewhere. Also, the AGN holds almost no records after the 1940s, when ministerial offices moved out of the National Palace to disparate new locations throughout the capital. Furthermore, records for the period prior to 1889 are scant, because the original archive burned down that year.
Nevertheless, the AGN holds many useful documents for the study of politics between 1890 and the 1940s, especially the papers of the Ministry of Government (Ministerio de Gobernación, or MG), the main body of sources for this study. That collection contains correspondence between the local, departmental, and national levels of government and includes substantive material on elections and political affairs. The collection consists of roughly five hundred archival boxes and one hundred and fifty bundles (roughly equivalent to another three hundred and fifty boxes) for the years 1889 to 1944. The materials are organized only by year, and documents relating to politics are intermixed with all other correspondence. The only way to find relevant information is to sift through the entire collection one page at a time. Indeed, my goal was to get through every box and bundle of documentation, which was a challenge, but thanks to generous access granted by the staff of the AGN, along with the use of a portable photocopier, I accomplished my goal and sifted through every dusty and mold-ridden page. In doing so, I gained a comprehensive overview of the extant documentary record.
I wanted to move further back into the nineteenth century to see if the patterns I was finding after 1890 had precedents. At first this seemed an impossible task, owing to the lack of documentation. Fortunately, the AGN contains the papers of Gobernación San Vicente (the office of San Vicente’s departmental governor). These materials had been stored in San Vicente and thus were not lost to the fire of 1889, and they also survived the 1936 earthquake that destroyed much of San Vicente City. The records date back to the 1840s and contain correspondence between the ministry of government, the departmental governor, and municipal political officials. In addition to those materials, the AGN holds sixteen file drawers of documents that were pulled from the embers of the 1889 fire; they offer further evidence of politics in the early decades of the nineteenth century. I also traveled to the municipal archive of Sonsonate City, which at that time contained records from as early as the 1790s, including invaluable electoral data dating back to the 1820s, when the very first elections were held in El Salvador. This discovery prompted me to seek out materials in other municipal archives throughout the western region, and while their collections were nowhere near as extensive as that of Sonsonate, they did provide valuable evidence.
In addition to archives in El Salvador, I consulted archives in the United States (State Department records), England (the papers of the Foreign Office), and Moscow (the archive of the Comintern). The latter shed particularly valuable insight on the events surrounding the 1932 uprising, in the form of correspondence between El Salvador’s fledging Communist Party, the Comintern, and the Comintern’s regional office, the Caribbean Bureau in New York City. 9
The Gobernación records constitute the main body of evidence for this study, and like any source, they are particular. They reside in a hybrid place between the public and private spheres. They were not intended to be circulated publicly, unlike newspapers or broadsides, which are printed with the intent of informing a public community, swaying opinion, and contributing to Habermas’s “rational-critical public debate.” 10 But neither were they the closed correspondence of a small group of individuals operating in an institutionalized structure, as were the letters and reports exchanged between the Salvadoran communists and the Comintern. Admittedly, some of the Gobernación records are like the Comintern materials, but most of them are the consequence of very public events, such as elections, the results of which were often published in publicly circulated newspapers. Furthermore, the individuals participating in the Gobernación correspondence were not necessarily close affiliates in a closed bureaucracy. They were often separated by vast distances—geographical, professional, and social—and the participants in the correspondence did not necessarily know one another, nor did they depend upon one another for their professional future. In fact, sometimes the authors were rivals. Thus, their correspondence is as much a reflection of a public political process as a closed, intrastate “community of discourse.” 11
Consequently, the Gobernación records allow the pursuit of a variety of research tracks. They can reveal something of the hidden transcripts of the subaltern voice, through the petitions contained therein, although they are not as effective at doing so as, for example, the sources Ricardo Salvatore employed to look at the paysanos of Buenos Aires, or as the artisanal newspapers that James Wood used to study Santiago’s semi-urban plebeians. 12 The Gobernación materials can illuminate the ways people communicated with one another about politics, both as confidants and as strangers. But normally their discourse was not intended for the public sphere, and so when I sought to better understand the ways they dialogued publicly about democracy and politics, I turned to more public, albeit less abundant, sources, such as periodicals and newspapers.
Introducing El Salvador
El Salvador followed the general chronological pattern of the rest of Latin America. It achieved independence from Spain in the 1820s and then entered into an extended period of political instability and economic malaise. A global economic downturn that lasted until the latter nineteenth century adversely affected all of Latin America, with few countries able to find buyers for their products. Peru was an exception, with its supplies of bird guano, which were used to make fertilizer. El Salvador also produced a crop that retained market validity: indigo, a blue dye derived from a plant that had been grown there since precolonial times. Regardless, the mid-nineteenth century was a challenging time for all of Latin America, El Salvador included. 13
An economic revival began in the 1870s and 1880s in the form of an export boom that lasted until the Great Depression in the 1930s. During that boom, almost every country in Latin America experienced a rapid surge in North American and European markets for its primary commodities. El Salvador’s crop was coffee, indigo having been displaced by other sources (British India) and the development of synthetic dyes. Coffee took over as the nation’s main export crop by the 1870s and went on to dominate the Salvadoran economy. By the 1920s it accounted for as much as 90 percent of the nation’s export revenues. 14 Throughout Latin America, the export boom grew economies and stabilized politics, but it also resulted in economic inequity and political dictatorship. El Salvador was no exception, and a small group of elite families came to control the lion’s share of wealth and power. 15
The inequities accompanying the export boom eventually prompted calls for reform throughout Latin America. Beginning in the early twentieth century, most Latin American countries witnessed a rising tide of labor activism and reform-oriented political movements. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1940 and the reform movement in Uruguay under President José Batlle are just two of the more well known, albeit diverse, examples. In El Salvador the reform movement was delayed and short-lived, taking the form of a brief democratic opening between 1927 and 1931 and a peasant uprising in 1932. But following the pattern of many other countries in which the onset of the Great Depression had triggered reactionary responses, El Salvador witnessed the coup that brought General Martínez to power, resulting in a thirteen-year dictatorship. 16
Depression-era dictators like Martínez found it difficult to weather the wave of democratization that swept across Latin America with the Allied victory in WWII. In many countries, new leaders came to power through democratic elections or mass-based populist movements, pushing the conservatives and reactionaries back. 17 The demise of General Martínez in 1944 provides a typical example. He was undone by a rising tide of a popular discontent that culminated in a general strike. 18 It appeared that El Salvador might reinvigorate its moribund democracy of 1931 and join other countries undergoing democratization, like neighboring Guatemala. But a reactionary countercoup put a quick end to that prospect and ushered in another four years of dictatorial military governance.
Nevertheless, El Salvador experienced its own version of populist reformism. Even though military officers continued to control government, each successive regime touted the cause of social reform more than its predecessors had. The conservative regime of 1944 to 1948 fell in a coup to a group of young, reformist officers who portrayed themselves as defenders of the common person and enemies of unscrupulous elites. Ultimately, the “revolutionaries” were more talk than action, and they refused to democratize, but they followed the continental pattern after WWII of appealing to the masses and legitimizing the calls for justice and reform. They fell from power in October 1960 to a combined civil-military movement that promised to advance the cause of reform even further. 19
The consolidation of the Cold War and the victory of the revolutionaries in Cuba in 1959 polarized Latin America and reinvigorated the conservative right, which associated reformism with communism and advocated an increased use of violence to defend itself from enemies at home and abroad. This growing polarization resulted in seizures of power by militaries or conservative movements, which threw reformists and populists out of office. With few exceptions, almost every country in Latin America came to be controlled by an anticommunist military dictatorship. Some examples include the ouster of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, the coup by General Augusto Pinochet against President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and the Argentine military’s seizure of power in 1954 and then again in 1976.
In El Salvador, the post–Cuban Revolution backlash came in the form of a military coup in January 1961 that ousted the civil-military reformers of October 1960 and accused them of being communists. The new leaders followed the pattern of attributing popular demands for change to communism. 20 They used violence and intimidation to quell the so-called communist threat, and they stayed in power through massive voting fraud in the presidential elections of 1972 and 1977. They also perpetrated increasingly brutal acts of violence in the countryside in hopes of quelling mass organization. But they also tried to maintain popular support by appealing to the reformist spirit of their predecessors. And they pursued modernizing reforms more aggressively, hoping to stave off looming financial ruin by diversifying the economy and creating jobs for the swelling mass of landless laborers. They opened up the political system to proportional representation in the 1960s, enacted a massive education reform in 1968 designed to boost school enrollment and train students for an emergent industrializing economy, embarked on widespread infrastructural improvements, and eventually tried to enact a land reform in 1976. Their strategy failed, and the increasing polarization culminated in the civil war of 1980 to 1992. 21 Not every country in Latin America experienced a full-scale civil war like that in El Salvador, but most every nation experienced a conservative backlash against reformism in the 1960s and 1970s, defined by state-sponsored terror and a corresponding radicalization of opposition.
El Salvador followed many Latin America–wide patterns, and thus questions about its history of authoritarianism can be answered in part by comparing it to other Latin American case studies. But Latin America exhibited tremendous diversity, and any generalizations need to be placed within the context of distinctiveness. As a case in point, El Salvador witnessed, as mentioned previously, both the longest run of interrupted military rule (1931–1979) and one of the single most violent acts of state-sponsored repression (the massacre of 1932). El Salvador thus had much less experience with populist reformism than the rest of Latin America. Whereas almost every country in Latin America had experienced at least one extended left-leaning or progressive government, El Salvador had sustained next to none. Basically, the political right has ruled El Salvador throughout its modern history.
In addition, El Salvador is the smallest country in Latin America, a situation that has had multiple consequences. One of these is a high population concentration. Even in the early twentieth century, few vacant areas existed in El Salvador. The countryside was heavily cultivated and densely populated, and so too was it highly deforested. In the western hemisphere, only Haiti is more deforested than El Salvador. Another consequence of El Salvador’s small size was a distinct experience with state centralization. The debates between centralists and federalists that were so important to other nations in Latin America mattered less in El Salvador. And once the state did centralize, the potential for regional factionalism was not great.
The economy of El Salvador was one of the most monocrop in Latin America. With as much as 90 percent of its export revenues derived from coffee by the late 1920s, El Salvador relied on a single crop for economic survival more than most any other country. Even with economic diversification in the 1940s and 1950s, in the form of cotton production and some modest industrialization, coffee continued to predominate. El Salvador’s modest land area also meant that its coffee plantations were distinct. Whereas coffee growers in Brazil, for example, could move on to new land once their current land deteriorated, no such option existed for Salvadoran growers. A large coffee plantation in Brazil might be many thousands of acres in size, whereas in El Salvador plantations approaching one thousand acres were rare. Consequently, growers in El Salvador became some of the most efficient in the world. Nevertheless, control over El Salvador’s coffee economy and the wealth that derived from it remained highly exclusive. El Salvador was not Costa Rica or Venezuela, where smallholders thrived. 22 In El Salvador, a small handful of people owned most of the nation’s arable land and controlled the processing and marketing of coffee. The remaining majority of the population either worked for them or barely survived on tiny plots of marginal land.
Another distinct feature of El Salvador’s economy was its limited degree of foreign investment. Most of the major economic units in El Salvador, especially its coffee plantations, were owned by Salvadorans. There was no United Fruit Company, as in neighboring Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Nor was there a substantial immigrant presence in the coffee economy, as with the Germans in Guatemala. Admittedly, some immigrants came to El Salvador and made a fortune in coffee and commerce, such as the Hills and the Dukes, but they married into well-established Salvadoran families and became part of the traditional Salvadoran elite. 23 When hard economic times hit in El Salvador, there were no foreign multinational corporations to target; instead it would be Salvadoran versus Salvadoran.
With regard to its ethnic identity, El Salvador once again offers a distinct case. It is common to hear Salvadorans describe their nation as the most mestizo in Latin America. Indeed, the indigenous presence in El Salvador declined significantly over time, more so than in most other countries that had large indigenous populations at the time of independence. Statistics relating to ethnic identity are invariably vague and difficult to come by, but at the time of independence El Salvador’s indigenous peoples may have comprised a near majority of the population. By the turn of the twentieth century, their proportion had declined to roughly 20 percent, and by the mid-twentieth century it had probably fallen below 10 percent. By that time Salvadorans commonly claimed that their country had no indigenous people at all. The causes of the decimating decline in indigenous identity are manifold and complex, but they resemble continental patterns. Assimilationist pressures and discriminatory practices in both the public and private sectors made it difficult for indigenous people to retain their identity from one generation to the next. These pressures were particularly intense in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, amidst rapid economic expansion and state centralization. The decline in indigenous identity may have been more precipitous in El Salvador than in other countries, but it was part of a broader pattern. Nevertheless, El Salvador stands in contrast to its neighbor Guatemala, where the proportion of indigenous people never dropped below 50 percent. Even if indigenous peoples were under great pressure in El Salvador, the issue of ethnicity and ethnic relations played decisive roles at key moments in the nation’s history. A case in point is the 1932 uprising. The geographic center of that uprising, the western highlands, was a demographic center of indigenous people, and most of the municipalities that experienced significant rebel activity were disproportionately indigenous. 24
Finally, as with any nation, El Salvador’s distinct geography shaped its socioeconomic history. As mentioned previously, El Salvador is a small country, approximately one hundred fifty miles long and sixty miles wide. It runs from Guatemala in the west to the Gulf of Fonseca in the east, and from the Pacific Ocean in the south to the Honduran border in the north. 25 For those readers not familiar with Salvadoran geography, a visualization exercise might be useful. Imagine El Salvador as a series of three steps climbing out of the Pacific Ocean and ending in Honduras. The first step is the coastal plain, which sits roughly at sea level and is anywhere from a few hundred yards to twenty miles wide. The second step is the central plateau, which sits at approximately two thousand feet above sea level and is roughly thirty miles wide. It is defined by a string of roughly one dozen volcanoes or volcanic upwellings that reach elevations as high as seven thousand feet. The third step is a mountain range that runs more or less the entirety of the Honduran border. The typical elevation of the range is four thousand to five thousand feet above sea level. El Salvador has one main river, the Lempa, which begins in the far northwest and runs east until it reaches the middle of the country, where it takes a sharp turn and runs straight for the Pacific Ocean. The once wild river has been restrained by a series of three dams that were constructed between the 1940s and 1970s, but the lower end of the system, the so-called Bajo Río Lempa, still experiences seasonal flooding.
El Salvador has few natural resources beyond its fertile soil and the labor of its people. Invariably, the country’s economic history, and the developmental programs that policymakers have pursued, revolved around agriculture. The hot, low-lying coastal plain is suited to growing tropical products like sugar, cotton, and fruit, and subsequently it has played a relevant role in the nation’s economic history. A significant portion of the nation’s population has lived there. By contrast, the mountain range along the Honduran border is comprised of nutrient-poor, rocky soil and thus has been the poorest and least densely populated of El Salvador’s three steps. The middle step, the central plateau, has been the economic and demographic center of Salvadoran history. Most of El Salvador’s largest cities are located there. During the colonial era and in the early nineteenth century, indigo was grown on the relatively flat floor of the plateau in the eastern region of country, in what are today San Miguel and San Vicente departments. But starting in the late nineteenth century, when the coffee economy took off, El Salvador’s volcanic upwellings offered some of the best coffee-growing lands in the world. There are three main coffee-growing areas: the western highlands situated at the intersection of Sonsonate, Ahuachapán, and Santa Ana departments; the central highlands around the San Salvador volcano and the cities of San Salvador and Nueva San Salvador (now Santa Tecla); and the highlands in the east, around Usulután. The latter was something of an agricultural frontier when the coffee economy emerged. The two western regions, by contrast, were densely populated, especially by indigenous people living on communal land that they had inherited from the Spanish crown. The privatization of those lands in the 1880s and their entrance into the marketplace for coffee cultivation was a defining moment in Salvadoran history.
Theorizing Democracy in El Salvador
Most people in El Salvador have lived most of their lives under authoritarian regimes. In this regard, El Salvador is something of a symbol for most nations, because democracy has been the exception rather than the rule in modern history. Scholars and practitioners alike have asked countless times about what variables cause a society to democratize. It would be foolish to try to understand El Salvador’s experience without drawing upon the wisdom contained in the vast and sprawling literature on democratic theory. Fortunately, some studies have synthesized the debates and placed them in a Latin American context, which helps to elucidate the Salvadoran case.
Before moving into those debates, it is necessary to define the key terms in use here: democracy and authoritarianism . For the sake of simplicity, the present study follows the lead of Paul Drake in his historical overview of democracy in Latin America. He focuses on elections and electoral competition and adopts what he calls a “binary, minimalist definition.” He defines a democratic society as one in which political leaders are chosen in relatively free and fair elections and the civil liberties of the citizenry are generally respected. In contrast, an authoritarian society is one in which those conditions are absent, where leaders come to power arbitrarily, militarily, or through elections that are not free and fair, and in a societal context in which civil liberties are not respected. The term authoritarian is sometimes associated narrowly with the military regimes of the latter twentieth century, but following Drake’s lead, the term is used more broadly here as being roughly synonymous with “dictatorial” and “nondemocratic.” 26
From these definitions it then follows that the term democratization refers to the process by which a society transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. It also stands to reason that societies can exhibit degrees of democratization, whereby a highly democratic society would allow “broader suffrage, hold more honest elections and protect more civil liberties” than its more minimally democratic counterparts. 27
It is widely accepted among scholars of political theory that poverty, inequity, and societal factionalism hinder democracy and promote authoritarianism. So if a society is generally poor, or its extant wealth is divided unequally, or its citizens are deeply divided by ethnicity or religion, then the sense of collective trust necessary to build a lasting democracy will be absent. This material/structural explanation for the origins of democracy is exemplified by a study coauthored by an economist and a political scientist, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, who aptly titled their work Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy . 28 Drake has made a general observation about Latin America that advances a similarly materialist approach, pointing out that the former core area of the Spanish empire, roughly the highland spine stretching from Mexico through Central America into the Andes, has been less democratic than regions on the colonial periphery, such as Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Drake explains this divergence by referring to Latin America’s material/economic history, in which the former core areas had large indigenous populations and the people who set up the governments and economies in those areas wanted access to labor. They gained it through racial hierarchies and highly coercive practices during both the colonial era and modern nationhood after independence. Comparatively speaking, peripheral areas exhibited less divisiveness because they were settled later in the colonial era for reasons other than the exploitation of native labor.
Central Americanists have employed a similar comparative argument to explain the divergent political outcomes on the isthmus. 29 In fact, Central America provides something of a laboratory for studying democratization because its five nations share similar histories and a close geography, yet they have produced divergent political systems. Costa Rica emerged as a relatively stable and functioning democracy, while its neighbors remained entrenched in authoritarianism. Some Central Americanists explain this divergence with an argument similar to Drake’s comparison between core and peripheral areas of the Spanish empire. According to this explanation, Costa Rica was part of Drake’s colonial periphery because it had a minimal concentration of indigenous peoples and so, despite being settled early in the colonial era, it remained a small and insignificant outpost of the Spanish empire. By comparison, the rest of Central America, and especially El Salvador and Guatemala, had large indigenous populations and became more important economic centers based on the exploitation of local labor.
By the nineteenth century, Costa Rica was still poor and relatively isolated, but it avoided the intense social hierarchies and racial hostilities of its neighbors. So when the export boom came along and Costa Rica emerged as a coffee producer, like its neighbors El Salvador and Guatemala, it did so differently, in a manner that was less coercive or conflictive. Subsequently, political leaders in Costa Rica could direct precious financial resources towards things other than war that would pay a return on their investment, like education. By contrast, leaders in El Salvador and Guatemala felt they had to invest in the military to preserve the coercive mechanisms that made their distinct methods of production possible.
These comparative arguments reveal that El Salvador exhibited many of the structural variables that promote authoritarianism rather than democracy. Compared to some of the larger core areas of the Spanish empire—Mexico and Peru, for instance—El Salvador was an impoverished and marginal place, and it did not have the opportunity to create a highly educated population or a strong economic foundation. Throughout its history, most of its people have been poor and illiterate, living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence in the countryside. At the time of independence, for example, El Salvador was a nation of roughly 250,000 people with a miniscule professional class consisting of around two dozen lawyers, doctors, and pharmacists. By 1930 it was a nation of 1.5 million, most of whom were still uneducated rural dwellers. But compared to Costa Rica, El Salvador was a core area of the colonial enterprise, and so it entered independence facing the legacies of colonialism—coercion and racial hierarchy—akin to those in Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. When El Salvador entered nationhood it possessed, as historian Héctor Lindo-Fuentes put it, “weak foundations” for economic and political modernization. 30
Arguably, El Salvador’s best chance to avoid authoritarian underdevelopment was during the coffee era in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when spectacular profits from agriculture could have been invested in broader and more sustainable development initiatives. However, that did not happen, and by the 1950s the window of opportunity was closing. By then, El Salvador’s structural problems were fully evident to anyone who cared to see them. The nation’s population was exploding, its agricultural frontier had all but disappeared, it relied on imported oil for energy, and its economic survival hinged on fickle international markets for agricultural commodities. Even if the political will had existed in the 1950s and 1960s to enact massive structural reforms, which it did not, avoiding long-term economic catastrophe would have been difficult. In hindsight, El Salvador would have had to have invested the surplus wealth from coffee differently, in a manner akin to Costa Rica. But in order to do so, the country needed a sense of common purpose and well-developed system of democratically based exchange; tragically, neither of those existed. 31
Charles Tilly’s study of democracy illustrates the challenges that a place like El Salvador faced in creating a more inclusive system. Tilly identifies three preconditions for democracy or, as he calls them, three “democracy-promoting causal mechanisms.” First, networks of trust and confidence that operate on a personal or local level have to be integrated into the national public arena. In other words, a society has to build collective trust, and its people have to cease operating as autonomous islands where trust exists only within isolated communities of family or friends rather than in the collective, national enterprise. Second, public politics has to be isolated from economic inequality. This means that either the inequity of a society needs to be reduced, or politics has to find a way to operate outside it. Lastly, local centers of autonomous power, such as warlords, patronage networks, or local militias, have to be eliminated. A strong, homogenizing state creates a situation in which all citizens find themselves bound together in a collective enterprise, rather than dedicating their loyalty to local power centers that weaken collective consciousness. Tilly emphasizes that democracy movements almost never emerge in nations with weak states; a strong state is a necessary precursor to democratization. 32
When Tilly’s analysis is applied to El Salvador, we see that only one of his democracy-causing mechanisms existed there by the late 1920s: a strong state that eradicated regional bases of autonomous power. The emergence of that one mechanism helps explain the short-lived democratic experiment that culminated in the election of Arturo Araujo in 1931. But the failure of the other two categories helps explain why democracy failed to withstand the military coup of December 1931.
A society’s material conditions may predispose it towards democracy or authoritarianism, but they are not destiny, nor do they eradicate variation within categories. 33 Take the examples of Mexico and Peru. Carlos Forment, a historian of nineteenth-century Latin American politics, shows that Mexico and Peru exhibited great variation in democratic potential. Forment acknowledges that both countries were authoritarian and followed the predictable path of former core areas of the Spanish Empire. But Forment shows that public life in the two societies was vastly different, and therefore their potential for democracy diverged. He focuses on the presence of civic associations—clubs and organizations—and the existence of print culture, such as newspapers. He shows that Mexico had a robust and vigorous civic-associational life and an active print culture, whereas Peru’s were moribund. Forment believes that the presence of civic associations is important because just as the renowned theorist of democracy Alexis de Toqueville argued many decades ago, civic associations make democracy more likely. When citizens practice democracy locally or gather to discuss plans for their association, they are much more likely to demand democracy in public politics. According to Forment, Mexico possessed a greater potential for democracy than Peru, and thus if Mexico failed to achieve democracy, some other contingent variables must be blamed. One such contingency, according to Forment, was foreign invasion—first by the United States in the 1840s and then by France in the 1860s. 34
One implication of Forment’s study is the decoupling of political practices from socioeconomic structures. If Mexico and Peru were roughly alike in their structures, yet divergent in their civic-associational lives, then perhaps their distinct cultures or praxes of politics functioned independently and guided those nations’ respective histories. This study offers similar potential, to the extent that it suggests that El Salvador’s political practices preceded the onset of the coffee economy in the late nineteenth century. There is little doubt that the distinct nature of El Salvador’s coffee economy and the distribution of the rewards of coffee growing contributed to the authoritarian practices of the twentieth century. But if the political practices preceded coffee, then either the material explanation needs to be pushed back earlier into El Salvador’s history, or the explanatory variable is less material and more cultural/discursive. Perhaps El Salvador’s coffee economy was determined by its politics and not vice versa. 35
Many scholars agree with Forment’s claim that international pressure can be an important contingency in promoting either democracy or authoritarianism. If a powerful foreign government, such as the United States or the United Kingdom, creates incentives for a Latin American nation to democratize, then it is possible that democratic movements will be invigorated. By the same token, if powerful foreign governments tolerate authoritarianism, then democracy’s prospects diminish. In the case of El Salvador, the United States was the main foreign power in the region, and it tended to encourage authoritarianism. It stood on the side of democracy in the 1920s under the auspices of the 1923 Washington Treaties, which called for diplomatic recognition to be withheld from any government that came to power in a nondemocratic manner. Accordingly, the United States withheld recognition from Martínez after the December 1931 coup. But when faced with Martínez’s obstinacy, it was unwilling or unable to do anything, and eventually it recognized the Martínez government in 1934. Arguably, it even bolstered Martínez by tolerating his harsh response to the 1932 uprising in the name of anticommunism. By contrast, the United States promoted democratic reforms in neighboring Nicaragua at roughly the same time in the early 1930s, ironically in the midst of a U.S. military occupation. 36
Another explanation for democratization revolves around the timing and nature of elite factionalism and mass-based mobilization. Political scientist Deborah Yashar has contributed to this arena with a comparative study of Guatemala and Costa Rica in the mid-twentieth century. She isolates the variables of elite unity and mass demands to argue that when a society’s elites factionalize at the same time that a mass movement coalesces, then democratization will likely occur. If either variable transpires independently, change is unlikely. 37 Acemoglu and Robinson advance a similar claim in Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy . In response to the question “Why does a nondemocratic elite ever democratize?” they answer, “Because the disenfranchised citizens can threaten the elite and force it to make concessions.” 38 This analysis can be usefully applied to El Salvador. A modest variation of elite division and mass demand occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s, promoting the brief process of democratization, but neither variable was sufficiently robust to sustain democracy, and thus authoritarianism returned in the military coup of 1931.
To summarize, scholars of politics have identified variables that tend to promote either democracy or authoritarianism. Some of those variables are long-term structures, while others are short-term contingencies. Some are domestic, and others foreign. El Salvador possessed few of the variables that promote democratization. Its structures put it on a path towards authoritarianism, and when countervailing contingencies favored democratization, they were insufficient to create lasting change.
Democratic Discourse and the Informal Rules of Politics
Following the definition of democracy provided by Drake, a democratic election is one in which multiple candidates present platforms to a voting population and the members of that population go to the polls of their own volition and choose their preferred candidate. By that definition, democratic elections have almost never occurred in El Salvador. Instead, elections were highly managed affairs with more or less predetermined outcomes and unanimous or near-unanimous results. On some occasions only one candidate ran, but on many occasions multiple candidates competed, or at least wanted to compete, and so the challenge for the eventual victor was to control the polling stations and make sure that voting went his way. Candidates employed a variety of tactics to achieve that goal, many involving some degree of physical coercion or violence. The dominant candidate often used violence to fend off rivals and secure control of the polling station, and his rivals responded with violence in desperate attempts to dislodge him.
Even though elections in El Salvador were not democratic, any study of them needs to acknowledge two overwhelming paradoxes: 1) that elections occurred constantly and oftentimes with large turnouts; and 2) they were accompanied by an unrelenting democratic discourse that celebrated free suffrage, liberty, and individual will. Even in a small country like El Salvador, the scale of these paradoxes is mind-boggling. El Salvador had between 200 and 248 municipalities at any given moment in its modern history. Elections for municipal officials and legislative deputies occurred every year or every other year, depending on the particular time period, and elections for national officials (congressional representatives and president) occurred every two or four years. Thus, during El Salvador’s first century of independence, literally tens of thousands of people oversaw something like twenty thousand elections and produced untold thousands of pages of politically based documentation, much of which ended up in archival storage. Furthermore, most of those people lived in small, highly intimate communities in which they and their families interacted with one another constantly. The documentary record reveals that all those people in all those places over all that time consistently violated the formal, written rules of politics and adhered to an informal, unwritten code typified by patronage and clientelism. Similarly, all of those people over all of that time and space employed democratic-sounding language to describe what they were doing, even though there was little or nothing democratic about their practices.
Any scholar who takes stock of that situation cannot help but ask how the system functioned so consistently over time. How did political actors from one generation to the next learn the informal, unwritten rules? And if political actors were aware that they were betraying the formal, written rules of politics, would a researcher not expect to see the façade fall away at some point in the documentation? Would political actors not at some point speak to one another more frankly about what they were doing and reveal their understanding of how the system really worked? And given that elites were invariably concerned about mass autonomous action, why would they employ such an egalitarian-sounding discourse and codify electoral rules that stressed democracy and liberty? 39
Maybe these questions and their corresponding paradoxes can be easily explained. After all, elections were highly managed affairs, so the fact that they took place regularly and with high turnouts might be insignificant; elites might have controlled them and forced poor retainers to come to the polls and vote according to their orders. By extension, the democratic discourse might have been empty rhetoric, a language that powerful people used to mask their nondemocratic practices. Even if such a discourse risked inciting the masses’ desire for equality, El Salvador was hardly unique in this regard. As the historian Florencia Mallon writes in her study of nation-state formation in Mexico and Peru, elites in both of those countries sought to “construct nation-states around hegemonic national-democratic discourses.” 40
Even a wave of revisionist scholarship that has revealed the existence of genuinely democratic practices in nineteenth-century Latin America agrees that those explanations might suffice. 41 For example, the historian Jorge Myers, who studied elections and political language in nineteenth-century Argentina, found a vigorous “discourse of Republic [that] became the single legitimate medium of public expression after 1820.” 42 Yet he contends that democratic and republican “principles could be proclaimed which not only were simultaneously being violated but whose violation was explained away in terms which the dominated could expose only through an arduous process of class-specific resemantization.” In other words, Myers says that rich, powerful people could create an exclusive system of rule by building up an explanatory system that celebrated democracy and individual rights and that was difficult for poor masses to challenge. Myers goes on to say that “what was being proclaimed as a principle for all could be understood from the vantage point of the dominators as in fact applicable only to the ruling few.” Recognizing the modern-sounding political discourse that accompanied elections in Argentina, he concludes that “revolutions in political language can take place without concomitant political revolutions. Thus we have to look closely at the language they used and how they coded it to make sense to themselves in their social context.” 43
Another historian of nineteenth-century Argentina, Hilda Sábato, operates in a similar vein as Myers, but in the broader context of electoral practices in nineteenth-century Latin America as a whole. She first acknowledges the predominance of elections: “Throughout the nineteenth century, in most areas of Latin America, elections to choose local, regional and national representatives, both direct and indirect, were held regularly and very frequently—in many places, several times a year. They were the prescribed way to political office.” 44 Like Myers, Sábato recognizes that those elections were often accompanied by a vigorous, modern-sounding political rhetoric that hailed democracy, citizenship, and freedom of choice. But she says that the newly emerging concept of a “modern citizen” overlapped with more traditional colonial or even precolonial concepts—pueblos, comunidades, and so on. She goes on to say that “the concept of modern representation was too abstract to be rapidly accepted by vast sectors of the population.” 45
These arguments by Meyers and Sábato offer reasons why we need not take too seriously the paradoxes of Salvadoran elections. Their studies allow us a couple of options: either Salvadoran elites believed that whatever they were doing actually constituted democracy, or elites understood the dilemmas they were facing and consciously employed a democratic-sounding rhetoric to mask their authoritarian practices. But Myers, Sábato, and other like-minded scholars see the situation in more complex terms. As one example, Drake confronts the conundrum in his survey of politics and elections in Latin America. He too observes the existence of the parallel universes of formal, written political rules and informal, unwritten political practices, or what Drake calls “custom.” 46 He readily acknowledges the challenge to understand how the two systems operated side by side over long expanses of time and across vast geographic spaces. In his search for an answer he turns to the field of study known as social institutionalism or discursive institutionalism. 47 Scholars operating in those arenas contend that once certain practices get up and running, they carry an autonomous momentum that can be difficult to divert. Certain practices become the accepted norm; they become ingrained into the cultural and social milieu, such that political actors simply could not conceive of the world working any other way. In the words of one institutionalist scholar, “compliance occurs in many circumstances because other types of behavior are inconceivable; routines are followed because they are taken for granted as ‘the way we do these things.’” 48 “Hence the naturalness of the lie,” declares Holden, “for without the constitutional disguises that made it possible for political authorities to claim a purely legalistic but spurious legitimacy, the hard patrimonial core of politics could scarcely have survived.” 49
Two scholars of contemporary Latin American politics, Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky, have come to similar conclusions in their attempts to document and understand the parallel existence of formal and informal institutions. They define informal institutions as “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated and enforced outside officially sanctioned channels.” They contend that the existence of informal rules is often “less a product of actor design than the (often unintended) consequence of a particular historical experience that creates certain socially shared expectations.” Helmke and Levitsky recognize the difficulty of studying informal institutions that do not exist in writing and can be documented only by observing them in practice. They describe the diverse methods that political scientists have employed to resolve this dilemma in the contemporary era, with one of the principal methods being simply a closely detailed “ethnographic” case study. The present work is an example of that method. It is historical, rather than contemporary, but it shows how the informal rules in El Salvador functioned by studying the imprint they left on the documents that Salvadorans used to conduct their day-to-day political affairs. 50
Aspiring political actors in El Salvador were exposed only to the informal rules of politics, and they came to believe that elections were managed affairs that one described with a democratic-sounding language. They accepted that norm and acted accordingly. In the process, they failed to see contradiction in either the use of democratic-sounding language amidst nondemocratic practices or in the adherence to informal rules that failed to correspond to the formal, written rules. If they did not see those contradictions, then it is not likely that they would have talked about them as such in their written documentation. If most of the politically active population accepted those rules as normal, abided by them, and passed them down from one generation to the next, then anyone with an alternative vision who sought to change the system would have confronted an overwhelming weight of institutionalized practice or “custom.” That is precisely what happened in El Salvador in the period between 1927 and 1931, when a new president, Pío Romero Bosque, tried to reform the electoral system.
Another way of describing the situation is that El Salvador exhibited a distinct political culture of authoritarianism. Following the lead of scholars like Peter Guardino and Consuelo Cruz, political culture is defined here as “discourses and practices characterizing politics,” which are “neither monolithic nor static.” 51 They are created by humans interacting in a social arena, and while culture may be stubbornly resistant to change, and while its existence may not even be apparent to the subjects who are acting it out, it is mutable in the hands of human actors. Thus, regardless of a society’s structural or material predispositions, culture can be an autonomous and causal variable.
In her comparative study of political rhetoric in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Cruz provides compelling evidence that political culture plays a role in guiding a society towards a particular political outcome. Cruz begins her comparison at the customary starting point—defining Costa Rica as democratic and Nicaragua as authoritarian. But Cruz then breaks with the standard materialist argument and insists that those outcomes were not predetermined by geographic, ethnic, or economic history. Instead, she insists that the extant political cultures in each society (i.e., the way that Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans came to see themselves and define their societies) contributed to the creation of their divergent polities. Specifically, she says that there is “no fixed rule as to which comes first,” cultural or material structures. 52
Cruz digs into the documentary record as far back as the early colonial period to reveal that the people who lived in the lands that would become Costa Rica and Nicaragua defined themselves distinctly. Costa Ricans possessed a “high-worth collective identity,” whereas Nicaraguans had a “low-worth collective identity.” This divergence meant that Costa Ricans, and particularly elite Costa Ricans, defined their population, and especially their poor people, as inherently meritorious. When they created laws, they did so to protect people and release their productive capacity. By comparison, Nicaraguan elites considered their people flawed and so created laws to control them. One of the many consequences of these divergences was different expectations for leadership. In Costa Rica, good leaders were defined as those who tried to meet the needs, expectations, and welfare of the whole of the population and who set aside personal political interests. In Nicaragua, leadership was seen more pessimistically; it was widely accepted that leaders would surrender to personalistic disputes without much concern for the general welfare.
Ironically, Cruz reveals that Nicaragua’s political system was more electoral than Costa Rica’s: more elections occurred in Nicaragua, and they began at an earlier date. But Cruz insists that what counts are the policies that political leaders implemented, regardless of how they came to power. Even though political leaders in Costa Rica avoided electoral accountability more than their Nicaraguan counterparts, they were more “democratic” in their policymaking. Building upon Cruz’s foundation, I contend that El Salvador was more like Nicaragua than Costa Rica.
Both Guardino and Cruz insist that in the study of political cultures, actors’ internal and private thoughts matter less than their actions and statements. It is next to impossible to determine what people actually thought based on our extant documentary record. But that is beside the point, Guardino says, because “public statements and practices are in fact what actually define political culture, which is ultimately about what people say and do rather than what they think.” 53 He goes on to say that “for understanding political culture and how it changed over time, people’s private beliefs are strangely irrelevant.” Cruz concurs, saying that “the analyst need not be concerned with the sincerity of the actor(s), but rather with the blunt question: Are their actions consistent with their words? In the crudest terms, do they adhere, do they deliver?” 54
I agree with them, and throughout this study I focus on what people said and did. But at the same time I cannot help but pose the question: What were political actors in El Salvador really thinking when they praised democracy and practiced authoritarianism? Were all those people in all those places who conducted all those elections over all those years duping themselves? Were they aware of the paradox, but somehow unable to articulate it in their correspondence with one another? Were they ignorant of the paradox? Were they subject to the hegemonic power of a small coterie of rich actors who pulled the strings from behind the scenes? Again, I recognize that these questions are somewhat beside the point, to say nothing of being too grandiose to engage in a meaningful way here. Fortunately, other scholars of Latin American political history have posed them, and it is worth looking at how they responded.
In his study of nineteenth-century politics and elections in Argentina, Myers notes a paradox similar to that discussed here—political actors employed a highly sophisticated political rhetoric that appealed to all of the modern republican principles, even though their elections were highly managed, nondemocratic affairs designed to meet the interests of a select few. He acknowledges that sometimes those elite actors employed democratic discourse “with out and out cynicism and a brutal disdain for ethical criteria.” But he also contends that they “frequently fervently believed” in what they were saying and would have “invoked them [the values of the democratic discourse] . . . even when their immediate functionality” had expired. 55 Myers finds himself compelled to ask if those actors truly believed what they were saying. In response to that question he draws upon the work of Paul Veyne, a French scholar of ancient Greece and Rome, who responded to the question of whether the ancient Greeks truly believed in their gods with “an ambiguous and reticent . . . yes and no.” In other words, Myers is unsatisfied with a traditional “functionalist” explanation that political leaders in nineteenth-century Argentina were aware of the contradictions between their rhetoric and their practices and thus their language was an intentional smokescreen. Like Drake, Myers finds himself advocating for a sort of institutionalist explanation whereby the difference between intentional, conscious action collapses with more long-standing norms of conduct that actors accept as the proper order of things. It is for this reason Myers chooses to focus on the “ambiguity and complexity of this phenomenon, on the frequent opacity of its effects . . . and on the manner in which an ideological postulate elevated to a position of centrality in the constitution of all public discourse, could not but disperse—prismatically—into a dazzling array of simultaneous meanings and effects.” 56
Another edifying example is provided by the U.S. South in the nineteenth century. Many southern planters employed a highly republican-sounding political rhetoric that touted democracy and freedom of choice. All the while, of course, they presided over a highly unequal society, both before and after emancipation. A British traveler to the United States in the 1820s astutely observed such traits among southern planters: “Look at them at home; you will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves.” 57 Various scholars of the nineteenth-century United States have discussed the intense intellectual and ideological compartmentalization that existed in the minds of southern elites to allow them to employ their liberal rhetoric so wholeheartedly, fully believing what they were saying, while living in a situation that they fully understood to be contradictory. 58 Of course, the issue of race was a key variable in that compartmentalization, which was not the case in El Salvador. Nonetheless, the U.S. South thus provides another example of contradictory rhetoric and reality residing side by side.
In El Salvador, a massive disconnect existed between the language of politics and the practice of politics, and between the informal and formal rules of politics. At the very least, documenting the existence of that disconnect and showing its functional existence over time goes a long ways toward explaining why El Salvador has had such a long and enduring tradition of authoritarianism and why prodemocracy advocates have faced such overwhelming hurdles in trying to implement reforms, even into the twenty-first century.
Structure of the Book
The book is divided into eight chapters and follows a broadly chronological pattern, although the first four chapters are organized somewhat thematically as well. Chapter 1 sets out the rules of politics in El Salvador in both their formal and informal guises. The formal rules—that is, the letter of the law—include the constitutionally defined laws governing politics and elections, as well as the specific rules relating to the methods by which voting was supposed to occur. These formal rules stated that El Salvador was a democratic republic in which popular will was to be expressed through free elections that would determine public officeholding. The informal rules reveal the ways in which Salvadorans actually practiced elections and how those practices often stuck to the letter of the law, but fundamentally subverted the spirit of the law as it related to democracy.
Chapter 2 shows those practices in action in a series of case studies of national-level politics in the nineteenth century. The limitations in source material prevent the presentation of a seamless narrative of nineteenth-century politics, but the available documentation allows for the reconstruction of some distinct cases between 1845 and 1894. They stand as metaphors for the whole. The cases reveal that politics consisted of regionally based patronage empires constantly jockeying with one another for position. The leaders of those miniature empires relied on the support of allies in the municipalities who could deliver the political capital necessary to sustain them. That capital included votes primarily, but also soldiers, money, food, and war material when things turned violent. The chapter remains focused on the national level, leaving the details of network building at the municipal level to the next two chapters.
Chapters 3 and 4 shift the focus from the national to the municipal level. Chapter 3 looks at the methods that municipal-level political bosses employed to build their networks. The traditional disparity between landed elites and their laborers was one mechanism that allowed for the creation of a political network. But it was hardly the only one. Family and ethnicity were other methods. And military officers, who might not have had much personal wealth, could also be effective political players.
Chapter 4 then builds off the methods examined in chapter 3 and shows how local networks competed with one another for control over local office in municipal elections. The second half shows how the emergence of a more powerful and centralized state shaped the local networks. In the past, national-level political actors were merely regional strongmen who had cobbled together fragile coalitions with other regional strongmen. Now, whoever sat in national-level office presided over a powerful entity that was less susceptible to attack. In this new structure, instead of trying to replace one patronage network with another, everyone operated within the confines of a single network that controlled the state.
Chapter 5 begins a succession of four chapters that adhere to a more strict chronological flow. This first chapter looks at the Meléndez-Quiñónez dynasty, which brought the system of centralized authoritarianism to its highest level to date. The chapter looks at the strategies and tactics used by the members of the Meléndez and Quiñónez families to control elections, illustrating that patronage and patron-client networks continued to define political activity, even with the increasing centralization of state authority. It takes as its main example a pair of aspiring political actors who felt alienated from the Meléndez-Quiñónez machine and tried to take their presidential aspirations outside the established norm by organizing independent political bases, similar to campaigns of the nineteenth century. They learned quickly and brutally that such endeavors had serious consequences.
Chapter 6 is dedicated to the administration of Pío Romero Bosque (1927–1931) and especially to Romero’s democratic reform program. It examines Romero’s tactics and the insurmountable obstacles that he faced in trying to inject a genuinely democratic spirit into electoral practice. Romero Bosque ultimately failed in his endeavor, but the documentary record of his efforts provides an invaluable look into the heart of the political system.
Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the first of the modern military regimes under General Martínez. Both chapters examine the formative period of 1931 to 1940, but each chapter analyzes a distinct aspect of Martínez’s rule. Chapter 7 looks at politics. Martínez’s regime turned back the clock on Romero Bosque and reinvigorated the patronage system as it had functioned under Meléndez-Quiñónez. Chapter 8 looks at social policy. The rebellion of 1932 prompted the military to appreciate the need for social reform, or at least the need to appear supportive of the idea of reform. This chapter delineates the ideology behind the reforms and details the specific policies pursued by the Martínez regime. One byproduct of this study is a realization of the complex relations that existed between economic elites and the military-led governments in twentieth-century El Salvador. Martínez’s reform program might not have threatened elites greatly, but it clearly antagonized them. It began a decades-long process through which elites remained suspicious of military leaders in office, believing that those leaders’ commitment to laissez-faire capitalism was constantly in flux even as the elites avidly welcomed the military’s coercive opposition to independent labor organizing, especially in the countryside.
Formal and Informal
Leaders of newly independent nations throughout the Americas in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries faced the challenge of determining what type of governing system best suited their societies. Regardless of the examples of the United States’ break from Great Britain and of Spain’s former colonies, national leaders in what came to called Latin America tended to equate independence with liberalism and modernism, but feared the extension of liberty to the masses of society. Hence, they often ended up living in complex, paradoxical systems, hybrid societies of sorts. They touted the merits of equality and structured their societies as republics in which popular elections determined officeholding, and yet they operated under a different set of informal rules that constrained freedom and concentrated authority. El Salvador was one of these new nations, and its tendency to fall into this pattern resembled that of its neighbors.
This chapter looks at the formal and informal rules that governed political life in El Salvador. The formal rules were officially laid down in constitutions and ordinances, and they explained how elections were supposed to work and how politics was expected to transpire. The informal rules were the ways in which people actually behaved when they did politics and conducted elections. The informal rules tended to stick to the letter of the formal rules; after all, people voted, and political leaders took office only after having won an election. But the informal rules diverged substantially from the spirit of the law. If the basic premise behind the concepts of popular will and freedom of suffrage was that individual voters had the right to select their leaders from a range of options without duress or coercion, then democracy was fleeting throughout the first century of El Salvador’s existence.
The following vignette from the vice presidential election of 1895 is presented as a metaphor for the broader whole of politics and elections in El Salvador. Most of the remaining evidence in this chapter will be drawn from the nineteenth century in order to set up the next chapter’s series of chronologically ordered case studies.
The Vice Presidential Election of 1895
The vice presidential election of 1895 left behind some of the most detailed records of any election in El Salvador. The records consist of municipality-by-municipality voting results, as well as a slew of telegrams and reports exchanged between the municipal and national levels, including some rare communiques between candidates and their local electoral activists. This cache of evidence reveals how national-level patronage networks and the accompanying electoral system functioned at a particular moment in time.
The 1895 vice presidential election occurred in the wake of a coup d’état led by General Rafael Gutiérrez (1894–1899) that overthrew President Carlos Ezeta (1890–1894). In the subsequent presidential election, Gutiérrez ran unopposed and won by a margin of 61,080 votes to 91—in other words, by the typically unanimous or near-unanimous result of an unrivaled political boss. 1 However, Gutiérrez had below him two powerful allies, Prudencio Alfaro and Carlos Meléndez—the latter would go on to hold the presidency in 1913. In the meantime, both Alfaro and Meléndez had played lead roles in Ezeta’s overthrow, but only one of them could become vice president. Gutiérrez apparently decided not to choose between his two aspiring underlings and instead allowed them to battle it out in an election. Alfaro won the contest with 38,006 votes to Meléndez’s 18,792, with the remaining 4,000 votes being divided up between four lesser candidates.
Those results make it appear that the election was genuinely competitive, and indeed at some level it was. Candidates faced off, voters from across the country cast votes, those votes were tallied up, and a winner was declared. But more revealing than the final result is the manner in which voting was conducted at the municipal level. Records reveal that voting within each municipality was not very competitive; in most cases it was decided by unanimous or near-unanimous results, and patronage networks were clearly in operation. The election was built around the practice of each candidate contacting powerful allies in the department capitals who in turn called upon subordinate political bosses in the municipalities. The municipal bosses were expected to control the polls in their towns and prevent affiliates of the rival candidates from doing the same. A close election such as this one, between two powerful political players such as Alfaro and Meléndez, would normally have ended in bloodshed, just as the rivalry between Generals Gutiérrez and Ezeta had. Fortunately, in this case, the presence of an undisputed superior authority, General Gutiérrez, ensured a peaceful process.
Alfaro’s point man in Sonsonate Department was Abrahán Rivera, a prominent landowner and a rising political boss in Sonsonate City. 2 In the following letter, Rivera informs Alfaro of his success in Sonsonate Department on election day.

Dr. don Prudencio Alfaro
My dear friend:
As we expected, in this department, with the exception of Izalco and Armenia, where there was imposition of comandantes working on behalf of other candidates, our triumph has been complete: The great majority has voted in our favor. In Nahuizalco, which is the toughest municipality in terms of elections, we have won with almost unanimity. At the last minute they had changed the comandante with the intention of altering the voting in favor of Pérez, but in the end this comandante could do nothing on account of the efficient work of Colonels Marcelo Brito and Lucas Peñate and of don Abrahán Guerra who have carried the day like true champions. In Juayúa, which is another important village, our triumph is complete. Colonel Tadeo Pérez [no relation to candidate Pérez] took the baton and aided us with great fortitude. In San Julián and the other coastal villages we have triumphed splendidly due to the cooperation of don Dionisio Herrera and the Señores Chinchilla and de León. In all the municipalities surrounding this city [Sonsonate] I have had very good agents at work, such that you won almost by unanimity. In this population where there has been the most work of the Melendistas, I have put a close watch on these rabbits [ conejos ] . . . so that despite the great amount of work that was being done on behalf of Meléndez, we reduced their supporters to an insignificant number.
Abrahán Rivera, Sonsonate, January 16, 1895 3
Rivera’s letter offers a rare and vivid description of a patronage-based political network in action. In his letter, Rivera lists each local subaltern by name and describes how they neutralized the local affiliates of the rival candidates. As Rivera points out, his allies reigned supreme in all but two of the department’s fourteen municipalities. Final returns from the election confirm his claim. Excluding those two outliers, Izalco and Armenia, Alfaro won the department by a combined total of 2,565 votes to 65. 4
Complete returns from the 1895 election provide a nationwide view of the monopolization of polling stations and demonstrate that what transpired in Sonsonate was typical. Voting occurred in all 248 municipalities in the nation. In 176 of these municipalities the victorious candidate won with more than 95 percent of the vote, including 96 municipalities where voting was unanimous. Alfaro’s network dominated seven of the fourteen departments (La Paz, Usulután, San Miguel, La Unión, Morazán, Ahuachapán, and Sonsonate), winning them by a combined total of 20,320 to 2,574. To his detriment, Meléndez controlled only two departments by comparable margins, San Vicente and Cabañas: 4,931 votes to 600. In the remaining five departments (Cuscatlán, Chalatenango, Santa Ana, San Salvador, and La Libertad) the two candidates split the departmentwide vote evenly, but voting at the municipal level was starkly divided. Cuscatlán Department provides a clear example. Alfaro and Meléndez each took 50 percent of the vote, but in thirteen of the department’s seventeen municipalities the victorious candidate won with more than 94 percent of the votes, including six municipalities that were decided by unanimity (see table 1.1). A similar result is found in Chalatenango Department, where Alfaro received just over 4,000 votes and Meléndez just under 3,000, a relatively even split. In twenty-seven of Chalatenango’s thirty-five municipalities victory was attained with at least 91 percent of the votes. Unfortunately, the historical record does not contain detailed letters from affiliates in other departments comparable to Rivera’s correspondence from Sonsonate. It can be safely assumed that in each of those departments, men like Rivera were diligently working on the behalf of Alfaro or Meléndez in the same way that Rivera was doing in Sonsonate. When Alfaro assumed the office of vice president, he knew that he owed those departmental bosses something for their support, or that he had burned through some of the political capital that he had accrued previously.

Table 1.1 Voting in Cuscatlán Department, Vice Presidential Election, 1895

Source: Asamblea Nacional, “Elección de 1895,” AGN, MG, unclassified box.
In those departments where voting was divided evenly, neither candidate’s network achieved departmentwide supremacy; there were no equivalents to Sonsonate’s Abrahán Rivera. Instead the candidates settled for as many municipalities as their subordinates could muster. In a recurrent scene, one municipality provided near-unanimous support for one candidate, while a neighboring municipality, sometimes located just a few kilometers down the road, produced an equally complete victory for a rival candidate. Overall, the results of the 1895 election highlight the golden rule of politics in El Salvador: to win an election, a network had to monopolize voting.
The 1895 election also reveals the democracy-laden discourse that accompanied these nondemocratic procedures. Carlos Meléndez was supported in his electoral bid by the newspaper La Verdad, based in the city of Nueva San Salvador. Unfortunately, no copies of that newspaper are known to have survived. But we know something of the claims made in La Verdad because after the election, Alfaro’s supporters responded to them in a pair of lengthy editorials in the government’s official newspaper, Diario Oficial . It seems that Meléndez did not take his defeat in stride. Although he had supported General Gutiérrez during the 1894 coup, he broke with him after his failed bid to become vice president. Shortly after the election, Meléndez’s supporters (and probably Meléndez himself), launched a vigorous public relations campaign in the pages of La Verdad, claiming that the past elections for both president and vice president had been done fraudulently and against popular will. In the words of the Diario Oficial editorialists, La Verdad claimed that “there had been no liberty in the elections,” the “victorious candidates for the executive offices had been imposed,” and thus the “new government was illegal.” 5
Gutiérrez’s supporters in Diario Oficial responded to those claims in multiple ways. First, they dismissed La Verdad on ideological grounds, accusing it of being “a clerical, Catholic newspaper” opposed to liberalism. Then they discredited the claims of electoral imposition in the vice presidential election by showing the departmentwide results that they touted as proof that multiple candidates received votes.

In the San Salvador Department Alfaro received 4,543 votes; Meléndez received 2,696.
Santa Ana . – Pérez 1,901. Alfaro, 1,210. Regalado, 432.
La Libertad . – Meléndez, 2,752. – Alfaro 1,001. Regalado, 472.
Sonsonate . – Alfaro 3,645 – Pérez. 590 – Meléndez, 188 – Hurtado, 177.
San Vicente . – Meléndez, 3,170 – Alfaro, 260.
Ahuachapán . – Alfaro, 2,635 – Meléndez, 2,634.
La Paz . – Alfaro, 3,334 – Meléndez, 408.
Usulután . – Alfaro, 3,096 – Meléndez, 270.
Chalatenango . – Alfaro, 4,278 – Meléndez, 2,750.
Armed with that evidence, the authors insisted that “only a losing candidate blinded by party loyalty” could fail to see “that the numerical results prove that an imposition under such circumstances was impossible.” Thus, they summarized, “the election for the vice president . . . has been free.” 6
Defending the presidential election was more of a challenge because, after all, Gutiérrez had been elected by unanimity without an opponent. The authors in Diario Oficial explained that “the unanimity is the result of the prestige of the April [1894] Revolution, the respect its leaders have shown for public liberty, and the honor demonstrated by the Provisional Government.” Thus, the authors concluded that the executive officers’ right to govern had been established by “the Salvadoran people freely exercising their right to vote in the most recent elections.” 7
In many and diverse ways, the vice presidential election of 1895 symbolizes the nature of electoral politics in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century El Salvador. First and foremost, it reveals that a lot of people voted in elections. Assuming that widespread ballot stuffing did not swell the numbers of voters, the more than sixty thousand votes cast represented at least 40 percent of eligible voters. 8 That is a lot of people physically making their way to a polling station on election day, especially considering that a sizeable portion of those people who did not vote were probably supporters of the recently ousted Ezeta network and thus would not have been allowed to vote. If nothing else, the high turnout indicates that political leaders took elections seriously. However predetermined the outcome may have been, as in the case of Gutiérrez’s presidential election, or however managed the voting was at any given polling station, such as during the vice presidential contest between Alfaro and Meléndez, political leaders needed their rule sanctified by an election, and they wanted people showing up on election day to legitimize the process.
Another characteristic revealed by this election is the absence of political platforms, policy proposals, or ideological vision. The candidates made no apparent attempt to explain themselves to voters or appeal to their particular interests—or, at least, no evidence survives to indicate that they did. Instead, the election consisted simply of two powerful national-level political actors lining up allies in municipalities to control voting at polling stations. Whatever means national political bosses employed to build alliances at the local level, and however local political bosses constructed their networks in the municipalities, be it coercion, persuasion, or both, they put them to work on election day by getting voters to the polls in support of the national-level boss.
The fact that voting occurred in the municipalities, under the purview of municipal authorities, provided the raw material for building the complex webs of patronage that bound local, regional, and national actors together. In fact, the electoral machinery used in national elections, such as voter registration lists (examined in more detail below), had been in action just a few weeks prior in municipal elections. Thus, the ability to deliver votes for a national-level politician was a direct continuation of delivering the same for oneself or one’s allies in a recent municipal election.
The success of national-level candidates hinged upon the capabilities of worthy and dutiful allies at the departmental and municipal levels, men like Abrahán Rivera in Sonsonate City. It is not clear what Rivera received from Alfaro for his successful efforts in Sonsonate. Perhaps Rivera was repaying a debt to Alfaro. Perhaps he received a government position in San Salvador. Perhaps he simply accrued political capital for his own battles in Sonsonate—assurance that a future petition from him would receive a favorable review at the national level. The available evidence does not reveal enough about Rivera’s career to say for certain, but unless he was somehow exceptional, he is likely to have applied one or another of these options.
Finally, the vice presidential election of 1895 shows that a rhetoric of democracy accompanied elections. Both Meléndez and Alfaro appealed to the principles of popular will, free suffrage, and democratic liberty to justify their assessments of the election. No one disparaged democracy. Rather, they accused one another of failing to live up to the high standards of democratic freedom, despite the fact that both of them followed the same nondemocratic procedures during the election. Neither side allowed opposition voters to cast ballots in areas where their allies controlled the polls. In most every municipality, voting was decided by unanimity or near unanimity. Each candidate wanted to control polling stations and maximize the number of votes in his favor while limiting or eliminating votes for his rivals. Even if Meléndez’s supporters in La Verdad had exposed the fallacies behind their opponents’ statistical defense in Diario Oficial by insisting that municipal-level results proved that Alfaro’s allies had prevented Meléndez’s supporters from voting, their case would have been no stronger, because they had done the same thing. Nevertheless, everyone employed a common rhetoric of democratic liberty.
These generalized comments will be fleshed out in greater detail in the coming pages. Suffice it to say for now that the vice presidential election of 1895 provides a revealing introduction to the complex and sprawling nature of politics in El Salvador in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I will now back up in chronology and show the formal electoral rules that had been put in place in the decades leading up to that moment in 1895.
The Formal Rules of Politics in Republican El Salvador
In 1821, after nearly three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule, Central America declared its independence. This break with the colonial motherland came without war, but it occurred within a distinct context of social inequality. A small minority of the population, the creoles (American-born Spaniards), had championed the cause of independence and intended to master the new order. They constituted less than 10 percent of the total population of Central America, and an even smaller proportion in El Salvador, yet they believed that they were the rightful heirs to Spain’s authority. 9 They justified this claim on the grounds that they were the only people in Central America qualified to govern, because the remaining 90 percent of the population consisted of Indians, Africans, and mestizos, whom the creoles considered to represent the regressive features of American society. The creoles assumed that these dark-skinned and mostly illiterate masses should not be allowed to participate freely in politics, because they would surely use political power to the detriment of the creoles and society as a whole.
The daunting task of building a new nation from the disparate remnants of the former Spanish empire was not unique to the creoles of Central America. Throughout Latin America, creoles struggled to give form to their nationalism and determine the type of government that would best serve their interests. 10 Naturally, intense debates ensued, with one of the most common divisions occurring between so-called conservatives and liberals. The former wished to retain much of the old colonial order, whereas the latter wished to transform society in ways consistent with more modern-looking structures. With the exception of a handful of radical liberals, who drew inspiration from events like the French Revolution and called for mass empowerment, most conservatives and liberals shared concerns over mass political action. Whatever structures they hoped to put in place in their newly independent nations, they wanted to be able to maintain control.
The process is well symbolized by the inveterate liberal creole Simón Bolívar, the “Liberator,” who vanquished Spain’s colonial armies and then faced the task of building a nation in the region known as Gran Colombia. Bolívar steadfastly believed that the structures of government in Britain, France, and the United States were models of modernity and progress, and especially of nationalism, but he rejected for his own land what he considered to be those nations’ excessive commitment to liberty. 11 Bolívar held the conviction that he and his fellow creoles were in conflict not only with Spain, but also with the masses, or as he put it, “we are disputing with the natives for titles of ownership.” 12 Bolívar sought to create a government in which liberty and democracy would be hailed, but curtailed. “All should not be left to chance and the outcome of elections,” Bolívar said famously before the Congress of Angostura in 1819, “the people are more easily deceived than is Nature perfected by art. . . . Absolute liberty invariably lapses into absolute power.” 13 Bolívar adopted measures to make government exclusive, like a hereditary senate, with a powerful executive. 14 Similar concerns shaped the foundations of government in Central America. 15
The creoles of Central America did not waver in their belief that the masses should be hindered from participating in politics, although they disagreed as to what type of government would best suit their needs. Some conservative creoles remained loyal to the idea of a monarchy and hoped for the establishment of an empire, if not the return of the Spanish crown. Other creoles, however, favored a form of republicanism, a government run by elected representatives. Parallel to and part of this conflict between monarchism and republicanism was a debate between federalists and centralists. Centralists wanted the five former intendancies of the Kingdom of Guatemala (now the five independent republics of modern Central America) to be consolidated under a single dominant regime. Federalists believed that the traditional animosity between the distinct regions demanded the creation of a federal government that would grant each province autonomy over its own affairs. 16
The supporters of republicanism and federalism prevailed, although local conservatives, especially in Guatemala, initially held the upper hand and supported Central America’s incorporation into the Mexican empire under Agustín Iturbide. That empire collapsed in 1823, freeing the new leaders of Central America to frame a constitution the following year to formalize the institutions of their new government, the United Provinces of Central America. The resultant charter of 1824 reflected the diverse motives that inspired it. It abolished slavery and rejected the idea that citizenship depended upon one’s continent of origin in favor of the more modern concepts of place of birth and naturalization. 17 It outlined a federal republic and heralded the virtues of representative democracy: “the government of the Republic is popular, representative and federal.” 18 It established popular elections as the method of transferring political power and separated the government into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. In short, it established democratic republicanism as the normative order, but democracy was a more worrisome prospect than republicanism. 19
The charter of 1824 limited mass participation by making all elections indirect, a tactic adopted from Spain’s Cádiz Constitution of 1812. Historian of Mexico Peter Guardino says that the Cádiz Constitution was not designed to encourage competitiveness. It was built around the notion of individuals working in corporate communities, such as guilds, who would send enlightened leaders to represent their interests at the governing level. 20 The Central Americanist historians Mario Rodríguez and Jordana Dym concur, pointing out that the Cádiz Constitution served as a model for Central America’s 1824 constitution. Voting lists from some of the first elections in El Salvador in the 1820s and 1830s, found in the municipal archive in Sonsonate City, reveal the functioning of indirect elections. Voters cast their votes for electores (electors or delegates), who then voted for the actual candidates on their behalf. The distance between the common voter and the candidates increased with the scale of the election. In municipal elections the selection of electores occurred in one round, meaning that connection between voter and candidate was relatively close. But in elections for the offices of president, vice president, and representatives to the federal congress, the selection of electores occurred in three rounds. Only in the first round did the common voter participate, and with each successive round, the number of electores grew smaller. By the final round of voting the electores and candidates were far removed from the common voter and had little accountability. Other tactics that limited the power of the common person included literacy and wealth requirements for officeholding. Thus, as Rodríguez acknowledges, the first government of Central America appealed to the principles of liberalism and democracy, but functioned more akin to a monarchy. 21
Although the creoles from the various regions of Central America agreed about the need to curtail mass empowerment, they failed to settle their own provincial rivalries. Just as the creoles of Paraguay, the Banda Oriental (Uruguay), and Upper Perú (Bolivia) defined true independence as liberation from both Spain and Argentina, the creoles of each Central American region considered their participation in the United Provinces to be almost as stifling as colonization by Spain. The rivalry between El Salvador and Guatemala was particularly intense. El Salvador produced many agricultural commodities, especially indigo, and the infamous merchants of Guatemala sought to control the marketing of those goods. El Salvador in turn resisted the Guatemalan monopoly, considering it a continuation of Spain’s mercantilist economy. Similar rivalries raged between all the provinces, and soon the peace of independence gave way to chronic warfare and instability. By 1839 conditions had deteriorated so badly that when John Lloyd Stephens, the roving ambassador from the United States, arrived on the scene he was unable to locate a functioning government. “After diligent search,” he wrote to his superiors in Washington, “no government found.” 22
Although the demise of the federation was associated with widespread disorder, in El Salvador the transition from federation to republic revealed a degree of continuity. It did not incite a revolutionary change in power; rather, the same men who had represented El Salvador in the federation assumed the reins of leadership in the new nation. A few of these men were Eduardo Vega, José Campo, and Vicente Gómez of Sonsonate, and Gerardo Barrios of San Miguel. They and others like them had participated in federal politics and went on to hold the highest-ranking offices in the new national government. 23 These men brought to El Salvador the same political philosophy that had predominated in the federation, namely a belief that government should be representative, and that democracy was a heralded principle, even though its actual practice was disconcerting.
Despite their suspicions about democracy, the initial leaders of El Salvador set important precedents for mass political participation in the country’s first constitution of 1841. They established representative democracy as the governing standard and eliminated some of the restrictions on mass participation in the 1824 constitution. The 1841 charter divided the powers of government into executive, judicial, and legislative branches. It made popular elections determinant for all officeholding. It made suffrage universal for all men over the age of twenty-one, regardless of ethnicity, literacy, or wealth. “All political power emanates from the people,” it reads, “the base of the electoral system is the population.” It retained indirect voting for municipal elections, which in some rural precincts enhanced the power of large landowners because the boundaries of voting precincts often coincided with the borders of hacienadas. However, the 1841 charter made national elections direct, even though national-level candidates still had to meet wealth requirements. Deputies and senators to the National Assembly had to prove possession of 500 and 4,000 pesos respectively, and the president and vice president had to own at least 8,000 pesos each. An individual who was elected deputy for Santa Ana District in 1849 had to resign his office because he did not “meet the constitutional requirements of possessing 500 pesos’ worth of capital, and moreover, the money which he claimed as his actually belonged to his mother.” 24 The 1841 constitution did not establish wealth restrictions for municipal officials, although some municipalities created their own wealth-based requirements for officeholding. In Sonsonate City and San Vicente City, for instance, candidates for local office had to qualify as “ hacendados y propietarios ” (landowners). 25
Each constitution that succeeded the original charter in 1841 enhanced the electoral power of the citizenry. The constitution of 1864 abolished wealth requirements for national officeholders, and the constitution of 1872 discontinued indirect elections at the municipal level. All of these extensions of electoral liberty were retained in the final constitution of the nineteenth century, which was ratified in 1886. Thus, by the 1870s, legally speaking, the political system of El Salvador was wide open. All adult males were enfranchised, all elections were direct, and no restrictions on officeholding existed. Notably, this steady advance of legal rights occurred regardless of the ostensible ideological orientation of the constitutions’ authors, because the constitutions of 1872 and 1886 were drafted by so-called liberals, and those of 1841 and 1864 were drafted by so-called conservatives.
This degree of electoral freedom in El Salvador’s legal codes contrasts with some other examples in Latin America, such as Colombia. Mass suffrage was codified in Colombia in 1853, in part because elites desperately needed mass support in their incessant battles with one another. Recognizing this, the masses bargained for legal rights. Liberal elites in particular were willing to extend voting rights to them in exchange for their support against conservatives. But by the 1870s and 1880s, elites on both sides of the spectrum came to worry about the degree of mass empowerment. During the so-called Regeneration period that began in the 1870s, and then specifically in the new Colombian Constitution of 1886, elites banded together and retracted some of the electoral privileges they had granted in the 1850s. 26 Similarly, in Nicaragua in the early 1880s voters still had to qualify as a “citizen” to be allowed to vote and hold political office, and to achieve citizenship a person had to own at least 100 pesos. 27
In El Salvador the opposite occurred. Restrictions codified in the early years of the federation and republic steadily fell away with each successive constitution, so that by the 1870s no restrictions remained. The reasons for this divergence are speculative. El Salvador witnessed plenty of intra-elite factionalism and infighting, and elites drew upon mass support for their respective conflagrations, but that factionalism was more personal than ideological, so perhaps elites shared opinions about the legal code and no faction felt the need to suddenly retract the actions of their predecessors. Research has shown with some definitiveness that Salvadoran elites tended to share a generalized liberal ideology. Even though they sometimes framed their disputes with one another in the standard conservative/liberal rhetoric of the day, the fact remains that most of them were basically liberals. This unity of ideology was caused in no small part by a shared animosity for Guatemala, where a more ideologically driven conservatism held sway throughout much of the nineteenth century. 28 Perhaps the masses in El Salvador simply managed to keep the pressure on elites longer and more effectively than their Colombian counterparts. Or perhaps the Salvadoran masses had never put a degree of pressure on their elites comparable to that imposed by the Colombian masses, so the Salvadoran elites did not fear codifying mass political participation. Whatever the cause of the divergence, the comparison between El Salvador and Colombia highlights the former’s advance of mass electoral rights and the latter’s retraction of them. 29
Still, El Salvador’s elites were concerned about autonomous mass action, and thus it is curious that they were so willing to advance a modern-looking electoral code. In facing this conundrum, Salvadoran elites were hardly unique in the context of nineteenth-century Latin America. Research on other nations reveals a constant tension among nineteenth-century elites wishing to participate in cutting-edge forms of nation-state formation, which often meant embracing liberal principles, while still protecting themselves from the vagaries of autonomous mass action. Elites throughout Central America were clearly aware of foreign models and the broader ideological trends relating to the language of republican democracy. As just one example, Costa Rican elites included elements of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man in their state constitution of 1824. 30 It also seems apparent that elites in El Salvador, like their counterparts in Colombia and Mexico, believed that potentially disruptive mass action could be curtailed through educational discipline. In Colombia, for example, Cerbeleón Pinzón drafted a primary-school text in 1864, Catecismo repúblicano para instrucción popular, to inculcate the masses with respect for social order. He wrote the text after mass suffrage had been granted in the 1850s, intending, in the words of historian James Sanders, to “discipline the masses, teach them their responsibilities and duties, so that they would not interpret their new rights in too radical a manner, [and] know their place behind liberal leaders.” 31 Similar catechisms appeared in other Latin American nations. 32 In El Salvador a comparable text, Cartilla del ciudadano (Catechism of citizenship), was written in 1874 by the liberal man of letters Francisco Galindo. It became a required text in schools. In it Galindo distinguished between the “people” ( el pueblo ) and “rabble” ( el populacho ), identifying the former as the foundation of the nation and the latter as a social problem. 33
Nevertheless, some features that limited voter freedom remained in place in El Salvador’s electoral system. The main one was oral voting. 34 The secret ballot was not established in El Salvador until the Constitution of 1950, meaning that until then all voting was conducted orally and in public. (Incidentally, female suffrage was granted in that same charter in 1950.) On election day voters gathered at the assigned polling station and awaited the formation of the electoral board ( directorio ). Once the board had been formed, voters filed before its members and announced their vote, which was written on a tally sheet ( pliego ) by a board official. Voters were dismissed without being allowed to verify their vote. A North American resident in El Salvador in the early twentieth century once bore witness to oral voting: “There is no secret ballot,” he wrote to his wife, “but there are 15 clerks who take down the wishes of the voters in their books as the ballot is passed around the table. The voter simply states who he wishes to vote for, publicly, and the clerks make the record.” 35 The tally sheets that have survived into El Salvador’s national archive offer physical evidence of this system at work. An examination of them reveals that each contains only one style of handwriting, that of the board member who recorded the votes.
Elections in El Salvador occurred frequently. Municipal councils were elected every year, as were representatives to the national congress. Presidential elections occurred every two years until the 1864 Constitution and then every four years thereafter. All of these elections were highly regimented affairs that functioned more or less in the following manner. Voting for all elections took place in the municipality and was overseen by municipal officials. Voting in municipal elections lasted one day, usually the first or second Sunday of December. Voting for national elections lasted three days and occurred roughly three weeks later, during the first or second weekend of January. In the month leading up to an election, voters were required to register their names in the registration book ( libro de registros ) that was located in the municipal hall ( cabildo ), which naturally was under the control of the reigning municipal council. The registration book was used on election day to cross-check voters for eligibility, and that same registration book was used for both municipal elections and national elections.
At 8:00 a.m. on the morning of an election, the reigning municipal officers gathered in front of the municipal hall to oversee the selection of the electoral board, which was to be comprised of at least four of the town’s residents. The electoral board was chosen by a vote of whomever happened to be standing in front of the municipal hall at that early hour. Once the electoral board had been chosen, its members sat down behind a table inside the municipal hall and proceeded to accept people’s votes, starting at 9:00 a.m. Voters filed before board members, announcing their name and their vote. If the board members determined that a voter was eligible in the registration book, they recorded his vote on a tally sheet. Voting ended at 5:00 p.m., and the results were either carried physically or telegraphed (once that became available) to the departmental governor’s officer for counting and verification. 36
At the local level, candidates competed for four offices—alcalde, regidor, síndico, and juez de paz. The alcalde (mayor) was the municipal executive who presided over council meetings, made political appointments, ruled on such things as disputes over land and water, and controlled the municipal police. He appointed the alguaciles (sheriffs) who patrolled the cantones (neighborhoods or precincts) and rural areas outside the municipality. Regidores (council members) supervised administrative affairs and stood in for the alcalde in case of his absence. Each municipal council had at least two and as many as ten regidores, depending on the size of the municipality. The síndico oversaw financial affairs and monitored municipal employees. The juez de paz (justice of the peace) administered local justice. 37
At the national level, candidates competed for the office of president and vice president and for seats in the legislative congress. All other national-level government offices were appointed by the president, including cabinet positions, judgeships, and departmental governorships. El Salvador stands out from larger countries in Latin America in that it did not have state governments and therefore did not have state-level legislatures or elections. Instead, El Salvador was divided into departments, which were administrative subunits of the national government. Departmental officials (particularly the departmental governor and the departmental military commander) were appointed by the president or the commanding military officer (who, most of the time, were one and the same). El Salvador had four departments in 1824 (Sonsonate, San Salvador, San Vicente, and San Miguel), and by 1875 it had its modern-day equivalent of fourteen departments (see map 2). Even though elections occurred at only two levels—municipal and national—the department was an important component of the political system because its officers (the governor and military commander) presided over affairs throughout their departments and represented important intermediaries between the local and national levels.
Electoral nullification was an important legal procedure in El Salvador that was designed to ensure adherence to electoral law. Each constitution stipulated that elections could be nullified if they were proven to have been conducted irregularly. The decisive question, of course, was who decided the meaning of regular and irregular? The answer to that question will be explored in greater detail in forthcoming chapters. Suffice it to say that the rules of electoral nullification were quite explicit. If evidence existed that voting for any election ran contrary to the stated laws, then officials at the departmental and national levels had the authority to nullify the election. Initial nullification requests were sent by a complainant at the municipal level to either the departmental governor or the minister of government in San Salvador. If those higher officials needed further evidence, they had the authority to send an investigative team to the municipality to produce a written report. The team could interview local residents, and if necessary, relevant witnesses could be called into the offices of higher authorities to provide testimony. If a victorious candidate was found guilty of misdeeds, his election was nullified and a replacement election was scheduled for a later date. Evidence shows that nullifications were a common feature of elections. El Salvador’s national archive contains more than three hundred complete nullification cases between 1889 and 1936, as well as surviving documentation from a few dozen more cases for the period prior to the 1889 archive fire. Many other nullification procedures, for which there are no surviving records, are mentioned in peripheral documents, suggesting that the actual number of cases was even greater. 38 As will be shown in the following pages, these nullification requests, which serve as the court cases of politics, provide valuable evidence into the nature of electoral procedures.
In summary, the letter of the law in El Salvador called for the creation of a representative democracy. Since the beginning of the republic, there had been few restrictions on voting, and whatever restrictions were in place steadily evaporated throughout the nineteenth century. Elections occurred frequently and at regularly scheduled intervals. And, as we are about to see, voters went to the polls. Victorious candidates assumed office, and nobody held office without the sanctity of an election. Some elections were highly competitive, such as the vice presidential election of 1895. Almost every election, competitive or not, tended to follow the letter of the law. But at a deeper, more fundamental level, they deviated from the spirit of the law as it related to democracy and individual liberty. Voting did not reflect the opinions of autonomous individuals selecting from a range of alternative platforms and ideologies. Instead, voting reflected political networks’ abilities to monopolize polling stations and ensure that whoever came to the polls voted accordingly.
The Informal Rules of Politics in Republican El Salvador
What compelled people to seek and hold political office in El Salvador? This is a sprawling question that can draw upon a morass of theories about human behavior. I will avoid that mess and stick to the basics. First, it should be pointed out that some people did not want to hold political office. A broadly accepted truism in El Salvador is that elites preferred to avoid politics and looked down on political officeholding as a dirty business that got in the way of making money. 39 To the extent that such a belief actually existed, it seems to have been a twentieth-century phenomenon; in the nineteenth century many elites held office, in part because the accumulation of private wealth often depended upon public policy or public favors. Furthermore, throughout much of the nineteenth century, the long midcentury economic downturn had circumscribed opportunities for private profit in the marketplace. Public officeholding was often a route of ascent, even if the government’s treasuries were meager and frequently plundered. People sought political office for diverse reasons: some were driven by highly selfish desires, while others felt called by altruism and hoped to improve society. Regardless of motive, people pursued political office to make policy and wield power, and anyone who wanted to get anything done had to have influence in the public sphere of government. Even if a person did not want to hold office himself, he wanted to be allied with someone who did.
At the local level, municipal officers presided over such things as land and water disputes, judicial rulings, the registration of births, deaths, and marriages, and various other factors of residents’ daily lives and livelihoods. The central government was weak and somewhat powerless throughout much of the nineteenth century, and municipal officials enjoyed a lot of latitude. In addition, municipal officials oversaw voting for national elections, and thus, inevitably, they were drawn into national-level political affairs.
Much the same can be said for national-level officials. Political office at the national level bestowed upon its holders various powers and responsibilities in the judicial, economic, and social arenas, including such areas as pensions, infrastructure, taxes, and education, to name just a few. Whatever compelled aspirants to pursue national-level office and affect policies in one or more of those arenas, be it personal aggrandizement or altruistic service, no political actor launched or succeeded in a career without creating a network tied into broad-based alliances at the departmental and municipal levels. Those alliances are the main focus of this book.
The foundation of political power at the municipal level is the subject of chapters 3 and 4. In those chapters I look at local elections and the ways in which municipal-level political players built up their networks and used them to control polling stations and fend off rivals. For now, it is enough to note that one of the most common methods of building a local political network was for local power players (usually elite landowners) to unite and acquire a group of loyal underlings, or clients, who could be enlisted on election day to do their bidding. The economic disparity between landowners and laborers was a basic mechanism that allowed for the accumulation of clients. But it was hardly the sole route to building a local network. As we will see, family ties and ethnic bonds, among other factors, transcended economic disparity and allowed people to create networks at the local level. In fact, some municipal-level political bosses, especially in impoverished areas of the country, were quite poor relative to their counterparts in other areas of the country, but they remained politically relevant because of the votes they presided over, especially if they happened to live in densely populated zones.
At the national level, political players succeeded or failed depending on their ability to build political networks out of disparate departments and municipalities. The strength of any one person’s network determined his ability to succeed in both electoral politics and warfare. My main contention is that politics in El Salvador and the building of these political networks operated according to an informal set of rules revolving around patronage. Scholars of Latin America have long recognized the existence of patronage in politics, but as historian Luis Roniger points out, only recently have they begun to study it systematically. 40 Early works on patronage tended to describe it in the limited context of caudillismo, the notorious “leaders on horseback” who were as much plundering bandits as political officials, who rewarded their supporters with stolen booty acquired through military adventurism. 41 Later studies have taken a more nuanced approach, endowing patronage with more subtlety and flexibility. They demonstrate that the typical patron was a local landowner and political official who came to power through an election—albeit a rigged one—and who distributed payoffs in the form of appointments and jobs rather than riches gained through plunder.
The institutions of caciquismo in Mexico and coronelismo in Brazil have attracted scholarly attention and inspired substantive and enlightening studies of patronage and patronage networks. The cacique and the coronel functioned in roughly the same manner in their respective nations as in El Salvador; they were local- or regional-level political bosses who presided over their immediate patronage networks and who tapped into broader networks at the national level, which in the case of Mexico were led by powerful caudillos. Ultimately, the power base of a cacique or a coronel was the body of local clients or retainers he could count on to provide votes or to serve as soldiers in support of higher-level political allies. 42 El Salvador did not have terms that were used regularly in political parlance, although occasionally powerful political patrons were referred to as jefe (boss) or cacique, and sometimes as notables (notable persons). From this point forward I will use the term political boss to refer to these political actors at both at the municipal and national levels.
A brief case study from the municipality of Chalchuapa (Santa Ana Department) in 1919 makes clear how the power of appointment could be used to influence an electoral outcome. The incumbent alcalde’s political network hoped to extend its tenure in office for another year, but it faced a stiff challenge from a rival network. The alcalde feared that his alguaciles were not going to support him in the election, even though he himself had appointed them. Why the alguaciles might have shifted loyalties remains unclear. Regardless, the alcalde put the powers of his office to work by dismissing all of them a few days prior to the election and appointing new ones, with the understanding that they would arrest opposition supporters. One of the appointees testified that the alcalde “told us that he was sure that in receiving our new appointments we would work to ensure the victory of his candidate.” 43
When analyzing these patronage alliances and their attendant patron-client relations at the local level, we must keep in mind their complexities and the need for nuance in describing them. As Justin Wolfe, a historian of nineteenth-century Nicaragua, insists, we must avoid “simplistic notions of caudillo politics . . . [in which] local elites controlled the masses through patronage and coercion and deployed them like pawns in political demonstrations, strikes, and regional uprising.” 44 As Wolfe and many other scholars of Latin American political history reveal, mass actors demonstrated the capacity for autonomous thought and action. 45 However hierarchical a system might have been, and however effective elite actors were at creating a hegemonic norm that benefitted them, the masses were capable of interpreting affairs from their perspectives and seeking satisfaction of their defined interests. Thus, political alliances between elites and commoners involved some form of negotiation, just as did the alliances between the elites themselves. Returning to the vice presidential election of 1895 as an example, the national-level political player, Prudencio Alfaro, bargained with regional bosses like Abrahán Rivera in Sonsonate, who bargained with municipal bosses throughout Sonsonate Department, who in turn bargained with the masses of voters who cast their votes at the polls on election day. Each of those interactions had a history, whether personal or institutional. Most political actors lived in close proximity to the people with whom they practiced politics, and their political relationships were intimately tied into all other social interactions. The history of those interactions and the ways in which individual actors remembered them constituted the raw material of political relationships. Although the sources surviving in the Salvadoran documentary record tend to be bureaucratic rather than personal, offering limited insight into these on-the-ground realities, they still reveal something of the complexity of people’s interactions. At the least, they demonstrate the need to keep these complexities in mind as we read of them.
At the foundation of their political empires, bosses traded to other bosses the services of their local networks in return for favors, such as appointment to political office, assistance in political battles, and favorable rulings from higher authorities in legal disputes, among many other forms of favor and payback. One common form of patronage reward, especially in the nineteenth century, was military promotion. 46 A local official once described a patronage relationship as being “en servicio” (in service) to someone else. He noted that in his jurisdiction patronage was commonly used to influence judicial outcomes. Certain criminals, he claimed, never received punishment because well-positioned allies secured lenient rulings from the police and judges. 47
Patronage knit disparate bosses together into powerful political machines that propelled their leaders into office by controlling elections and fighting off rivals. Patronage networks resembled political parties in that they were mechanisms of political ascent, and occasionally these networks were even referred to as partidos (parties). But they differed from any modern concept of political parties. They did not offer platforms or political agendas, nor did they compete for popular appeal. Instead they were highly personalistic, typically hierarchical units designed to monopolize voting, control public office, and militarily resist rival networks when necessary.
The nomenclature of networks reflects their makeup. They did not bear distinct names beyond those of their reigning bosses. A network led by a Meléndez, for instance, was referred to as the Melendistas ; another, led by a Rivera, was called the Riveristas . The names changed with changes in leadership. Not until the 1920s, and then only at the national level, were attempts made to form political parties. During the nineteenth century political actors referred to party names only in the application of the terms liberal and conservative to political factions, as in the “liberal party” or the “conservative party.” These were not official parties, but rather labels used to disparage opponents and justify one’s own aspirations based on hyperbolic accusations. 48 Networks grew and contracted over time as new patronage deals were struck and old ones were broken. However, networks tended to remain stable over time. It was not uncommon for a political actor to maintain some of the same patronage alliances throughout his entire political life.
Broadly speaking, the system in El Salvador functioned in the following manner. At the municipal level, political bosses accumulated retainers or clients and marshaled them to ascend the heights of local power. Accomplishing this task meant fending off local rivals, perhaps through the use of violence, in order to control the annual municipal election. Once in charge in his municipality, a boss entered into patronage relations with larger political networks at the departmental and national levels. One of the key assets available to a local boss in negotiations with outsiders was the votes of his municipality, something that outside aspirants desperately wanted. Similarly, when political affairs turned violent and national-level bosses needed resources for combat, local bosses served as the conduit for the precious commodities of men, food, money, and war material. It was the local boss’s duty to generate votes and resources in his municipality at the behest of his larger patrons. In return he hoped to either climb the ladder of politics or receive support from powerful outsiders in political conflagrations at home.
At a certain level, national-level bosses were simply successful municipal-level bosses. They typically came from wealth and had a local power base (their land, and a stronghold of friends, families, and retainers at either the municipal or regional level) that they could rely upon when needed. But rarely, if ever, was that personal base alone sufficient to propel a political aspirant to the heights of national office. For that, aspirants needed allies, lots of them, capable leaders in dozens of disparate municipalities who could produce the votes and resources necessary to advance a political career.
Building Pyramids
The extent of popular participation in elections in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Latin America is a point of historiographical debate. Received wisdom holds that elections during those years were characterized by an extremely restricted franchise in which elites excluded the popular sectors either through formal laws or informal practices. Revisionists challenge this assumption by offering evidence of a broader franchise and even genuinely democratic practices. 49 A similar debate raged in the 1960s and 1970s about U.S. colonial history. 50
The revisionist line holds great promise, because it brings new evidence to light and employs revealing theoretical frameworks, such as those that grant agency to subaltern actors. But the revisionist line does not seem to describe the Salvadoran case very well. In El Salvador, elections tended to be all or nothing. The goal of political activity was to eliminate the opposition, control the polling place, and monopolize voting. Competing networks did not share the spoils of government, and political opponents did not sit together on the same municipal council.
The traditional route of ascent from local to national politics lay through the National Assembly. Historian Alain Rouquié’s definition of the state as “the place for transactions and bargaining between locally propertied groups,” applies literally to the National Assembly in El Salvador. 51 The three dozen or so members of the assembly were regional strongmen who held their positions at the behest of their political networks. They arrived in San Salvador looking to form alliances with other bosses in hopes of building ever-larger pyramids, and whoever assembled the largest networks could compete for the ultimate political prize, the presidency.
Each member of the assembly had a bargaining chip to offer potential allies: the resources of his local network. When he or his allies needed a certain electoral result, he had to be able to generate the needed votes from his local affiliates. When political disputes turned violent, he had to produce soldiers, money, or war material. As a result, each member of the assembly waged political battles on two fronts: at the national level, where he struggled to sustain his alliances, and at the local level, where he had to guard against the machinations of opponents at home, who were busy seeking out alliances with other national-level patrons. In this way, national politics comprised of a series of constant and crisscrossing interactions between local, departmental, and national levels. Although many local conflicts had nothing to do with national politics, some local political battles grew directly out of national-level disputes, and in turn most national conflicts were fought out in the municipalities.
Since the road to national power lay through the National Assembly, political actors who aspired to national-level office usually launched their careers in their own legislative precincts by winning election as a representative to the assembly. Until 1883 the assembly consisted of two houses, the chamber of deputies and the senate. Each senator and deputy was elected from his respective parish ( parroquía ). The senator’s parish was known as a circle ( círculo ), which consisted of up to thirty thousand inhabitants, and the deputies’ parishes were called districts ( distritos ), which had no more than fifteen thousand inhabitants. The largest municipality in each parish was designated as the capital ( cabacera ) and served as the administrative center. The total number of parishes in the nation hovered around four dozen, accounting for the roughly three dozen deputies and one dozen senators. Each department typically had two circles consisting of two or three districts, each of which contained roughly six municipalities.
In 1883 the administrative system changed slightly. The new constitution that year (one of many in the 1880s that finally culminated in the durable charter of 1886) abolished the senate, leaving only the chamber of deputies (that is, the National Assembly) as the sole legislative body. Each deputy to the assembly was elected in departmentwide elections rather than by individual parishes. Each department elected three deputies, for a total of forty-two members in the assembly. This system remained in place until after World War II.
Prior to the changes of 1883, the parish was the first step of the political ladder beyond the municipality. Parish politics gave a local politician his first opportunity to form extramunicipal alliances. He and the bosses of the other five or six municipalities in his district or circle had to elect one deputy or one senator to the national legislature. Each boss wanted the votes of the other members’ municipalities, and each hoped to use his own votes as leverage to extract favors from his counterparts or to influence the choice of candidates.
The reigning bosses of the parish capital were the main arbiters of electoral power. They were usually prominent landowners, and since the capital was the largest city in the area, its bosses had at their disposal the greatest number of votes. Moreover, the capital was the administrative center of the parish and served as the site of vote counting, meaning that the other municipalities had to send their ballots to the capital to be tallied, giving the bosses of the capital even more influence. A typical example of the vote-counting orders that went from the capital to outlying municipalities reads, “the vote counters of . . . each voting district are to arrive at the municipal hall of this municipality at twelve o’clock noon, next Sunday the fourteenth of this month, bringing with them the pliegos [ballots] . . . in order to effect the counting of the votes.” 52
The election of 1870 in the parish capital of Izalco reveals a typical example of the ability of local bosses to dominate affairs. Of the offices to be chosen that year, and of the four positions to be filled on the electoral council, all but one of were filled by Izalqueños (see table 1.2). The election also reveals the relationship between land, family, and politics. Two families, Barrientos and Castillo, both prominent landowning clans, accounted for three of the four elected positions, as well as the president of the directorio. 53

Table 1.2 Assembly Elections, Izalco Parish, December 1870 (each official’s municipality of origin is listed in parentheses)

Source: Junta Electoral, San Julian, December 6, 1870, AGN, FA, Box “#2.2”; and Junta Electoral, Izalco, December 6, 1870, AMS, Box “Elecciones, 1870–9.”
Deputies and senators typically ran unopposed and won their offices by unanimous vote. All of the candidates in the 1870 election in Izalco, for example, won by unanimity. Electoral results from other times and places reveal similar results. The deputy from Santa Ana District, for example, won his election in 1841 with 127 unanimous votes. The deputy of Sonsonate District won his election in December 1841 with 320 unanimous votes, and in October 1842, the deputy from Sonsonate District won with 307 unanimous votes. 54 But congressional elections differed from municipal elections in that the dominant bosses of the capital city did not physically control each polling station, and as a result, their ability to control voting in each municipality depended upon the strength of their patronage ties and the fortitude of their local allies. When adversaries of the reigning bosses in the capital came to power in an outlying town, voting could be contested.
The deputy election of 1883 in Atiquizaya District offers a typical example of a contested parish election (see table 1.3). Four of the district’s five municipalities unanimously supported Rafael Guerrero, the candidate put forth by the Atiquizaya bosses. But officials in one outlying municipality, Apaneca, opposed Guerrero and gave all 141 of their votes to an alternative candidate. Although Guerrero won the election and went on to San Salvador as the deputy from Atiquizaya, his ability to build patronage alliances at the national level was weakened by Apaneca’s opposition because he could not guarantee the unanimous vote of his own parish.

Table 1.3 Deputy Election, Atiquizaya District, December 30, 1883

Source: Junta Electoral, Atiquizaya, December 30, 1883, AGN, MG, Box “1882, 1884, 1886, 1887, 1888.”
Sources do not reveal the motivations behind Apaneca’s defiance. But the range of possibilities is limited. Either the bosses of the reigning network in Apaneca disagreed with the choice put forth by the leaders in Atiquizaya, or they were acting in concert with national-level opponents of those leaders. Whatever the case, the election illustrates the functioning of national-level politics during the nineteenth century. Each municipality typically voted unanimously according to the dictates of the reigning local network. And if one network fell to another, then the candidate and his attendant voters changed, but the results were the same—unanimity or near unanimity. The goal of politics was not to sway voters and allow for a competitive franchise, but rather to create patronage alliances that could control voting.
Each January, during assembly elections, aspiring bosses across the nation grappled with one another for dominance in their respective parishes. Each parish boss wanted to get himself or one of his immediate allies elected to the assembly and thus in position to broker deals with bosses from other parishes and departments throughout the country. Parish bosses usually had to negotiate with their respective department capital first and thus could not broker deals independently at the national level. Even before 1883, when parishes controlled the selection of deputies and senators, the departmental capital still had a lot of power. It had its own senator and deputy, giving it control over as much as one-third of the department’s allotment of congressional representatives. In addition, bosses in the department capital were usually its most prominent landowners and had family and land spread throughout the department, giving them at least some influence over outlying parishes. After 1883 the department capital held an even greater tactical advantage, because its officials oversaw the selection of all three of the department’s deputies to the National Assembly.
The department capital was also in a privileged bargaining position because it housed two powerful officials appointed at the national level, the departmental governor and the departmental commander ( comandante ), both of whom had wide jurisdiction. The governor, as the departmental executive, ruled on everything from electoral irregularities to land disputes and labor contracts. The commander presided over the departmental garrison, organized the militia, and commanded the military patrols. The same person often held both positions, giving him tremendous latitude. When one or both of them allied with the reigning political network in the departmental capital—meaning that the president in San Salvador had chosen them from that network—they facilitated the political unification of the entire department. When either the governor or commander was not allied with the reigning political network in the department capital, politics took on a more freewheeling quality, rife with conspiracies and frequent violent clashes. Regardless, parish bosses typically acquiesced to the department capital, recognizing that it was better to be a subordinate member of a powerful network than the leader of an inconsequential network.
Departmental capitals produced most every major player in national-level politics. In the first decades after independence these players included Rafael Campo and Vicente Gómez of Sonsonate; Doroteo Vasconcelos, General Inocente Marín, and General Indalecio Miranda from San Vicente; General Gerardo Barrios and General Joaquín Guzmán from San Miguel; and Francisco Dueñas and Manuel Gallardo from San Salvador (La Libertad). In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, new people from other departments rose to prominence, such as General José María Rivas of Cuscatlán, General Francisco Menéndez of Ahuachapán, and Rafael Zaldívar and General Tomás Regalado of Santa Ana, to name just a few. The emergence of political players from departments like Ahuachapán and Santa Ana reflected the surge in coffee production, turning those once marginal areas into economic and political powerhouses.
The major political bosses typically migrated back and forth between their home capital and the national capital in accordance with their political fortunes. The standard route of ascent began in the department capital with service on numerous election councils and in various municipal offices. Then, once a boss had positioned himself atop the hierarchy of the department capital, he got elected to the National Assembly, giving him an opportunity to build alliances at the national level. If he proved adept at political deal-making at the national level and took advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves, and if he received the full electoral and material support of his home network when he needed it, he had the chance to ascend to higher offices, such as judgeships, the cabinet, the vice presidency, or the presidency. In the event that he came to hold one of these high-ranking offices but found himself ousted from power in a military action or a reversal of electoral fortune, he simply returned to his home capital and reentered municipal politics. In the event that his defeat was further compounded by an ouster from his position in the departmental capital, he simply retreated one step further to his private estate, where he and his allies awaited an opportunity to resume political activity. In the worst-case scenario, he was forced into exile, leaving his political and economic fortunes behind.
The political career of Rafael Campo, an important political player from Sonsonate City in the early decades of the republic, illustrates the ups and downs of politics and the movement to and from the national capital.

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